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MEE: Morocco’s skirt length battle: What are the deeper questions?

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When two Moroccan women were accused of gross indecency earlier this month, for wearing clothing deemed “too tight” as they walked through a market in Inezgane, near the southern city of Agadir in Morocco, the headlines were focused on yet another Muslim country’s seeming obsession with women’s sartorial choices.

In an indication of the inflammatory nature of such issues, rallies in support of the two women were held in both Agadir and Casablanca, while hundreds of lawyers offered their services in defence of the women.

Certainly the issue of what women can – or can’t – wear in Morocco continues to cause debate, whether on the streets where women, whether in the traditional djelaba or in short skirts, invariably experience some form of sexual harassment, or on the pages of the nation’s dailies. And although the question is tied into a broader struggle for women’s greater autonomy and individual freedom in a deeply patriarchal context, the debate also speaks to a much deeper, underlying question over the very nature of Moroccan society, and who gets to define it.

But the issues at stake are far wider than women’s hems.

In particular, Moroccan law in the form of Article 483 of the penal code, carries a penalty of up to two years in jail for anyone found guilty of committing an act of “public obscenity”. In recent years, women’s groups in particular have sought to challenge what they perceive as undue restrictions on women’s choices enshrined in law, as well as a lack of legal protection for women in cases such as marital rape or domestic violence more broadly, among a range of other issues.

Just last month, one of Morocco’s most critically acclaimed film directors, Nabil Ayouch, was summoned to court on charges of “pornography, indecency and inciting minors to debauchery” for his portrayal of the Moroccan prostitution industry, in his latest film Much Loved (“Zine Li Fik” in Moroccan Arabic). Thousands called for the film to be banned and the Minister of Communication Mustapha al-Khalfi, from the Islamist-inclined Justice and Development Party (PJD), decried the film as undermining “the moral values and dignity of Moroccan women”.

And in June, two Moroccan gay men were sentenced to jail in another case which caused uproar, after they were arrested as they posed for a photograph in the political capital of Rabat. One of the country’s most provocative, French-speaking publications, Tel Quel, regularly enflames such debates by featuring nudity and sex in its pages, and most recently, an editorial describing “consensual love between two adults” as “not a crime,” despite homosexuality remaining illegal in the kingdom.

Such incidents are merely the fault lines of an ongoing struggle between old and aspiring elites over the cultural references which should delineate the contours of Moroccan society, particularly as related to issues of morality – itself at the heart of the question of identity.

For Islamists and social conservatives more broadly, preserving and enhancing Morocco’s Islamic identity is key to reasserting an independent national identity, free of the legacy of colonial influence, while their opponents regard the use of religion in the political sphere as a tool of social control, which unduly restricts individual choices.

Although the women involved were acquitted, the case sent ripples through Moroccan society, where a petition supporting them garnered over 27,000 signatures and debates were reignited over the limits of personal freedom in a conservative society, in which Islam is the constitutionally established religion of the state.

The case is the second such scandal relating to morality and women’s clothing in the kingdom of late, with American singer Jennifer Lopez’s performance at the Mawazine festival in Rabat in May, currently the subject of an investigation ordered by the Prime Minister Abdelillah Benkirane, after it was aired on Morocco’s public TV network, 2M.

Benkirane, also from the Party for the Justice and Development (PJD), deemed the show “sexually suggestive” and thus in violation of the country’s audio-visual laws, describing the decision to air as “indecent and provocative to the religious and moral values of Moroccan society”.

From a working-class socially conservative background himself, Benkirane regularly denounces the gulf he perceives between the social mores of the Moroccan elites and the sensibilities of the masses and believes in upholding existing limits which preserve Morocco’s conservative customs, rather than seeking to reform them. In this view, he is challenged by campaigners such as Fouzia Assouli, head of the LDDF women’s rights organisation, who lauded the acquittal of the women and whose organisation campaigns for Article 483 of the penal code to be revised.

While the case has largely been described as one of divisions over women’s freedom of choice, Amnesty International condemned the trial as “part of a pattern of discriminatory laws and practices” in the country, pointing out that “The case has all the hallmarks of a discriminatory use of the law against women”. While the rallies in support of the women were often interpreted as being solely about the right to choose one’s clothing, they reflect an increasing vocality among a range of Moroccan women, from religious conservatives to more liberal voices, over discriminatory practises against women, despite the kingdom having enacted a number of progressive reforms to the country’s “moudawana” (the official family code) and having signed up to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) .

The envisaged solutions to women’s problems, however, invariably differ. With the growth in popularity of the Islamist political party, the party for Justice and Development from 2002 onwards, public debates have increasingly reflected a schism between two visions of Morocco, one in which the Islamic heritage of the modern state should increasingly define its outlook and parameters, and those for who favour a more secular nature of both state and society.

Women’s clothing is often a lightning rod issue in post-colonial Muslim societies, where differing views on the primacy of individual freedom versus socially conservative social mores reflect a broader divide over the very nature of the society aspired to. In Morocco, issues of personal freedom, from the right to have sex outside of marriage, to the right to break the Muslim fast openly during the month of Ramadan, or the right to publicly identify as gay in a country in which homosexuality remains illegal, all regularly spark national conversations, dividing those who wish to see the monarchy, headed by a king who doubles as a religious leader, bearing the weighty title of “leader of the believers,” maintain a conservative religious ethos, and those who would like to see Morocco move closer to a European style liberal democracy in which the monarchy itself would take on a far more symbolic role.

In evidence of the deep roots of current debates, the arrest of the gay men was met by demonstrations in front of the French embassy in Rabat, where protestors chanted “This is Rabat, not Paris,” in reference to suspicion the men had been taking their cues from French Femen protestors who’d been deported after kissing as part of a topless protest.

The reference to French influence reflects an underlying divide over the continuing legacy of colonial influence over the form and direction of contemporary Morocco. For some, liberal mores and practises, including secular principles, reflect an ongoing colonial legacy which conflicts with a presumed essential “Islamic” nature of Moroccan society, in a glorified reimagining of pre-colonial Morocco. But the divide is itself complex, with Westernised elites identified with a corrupt, exclusive cast which continues to enrich itself at the expense of an impoverished majority, for whom Islamic principles reflect a call to social and economic justice expressed in the idiom of the masses.

Disputes over clothing and the polarising impact they appear to have should therefore be assessed within the broader struggle within Moroccan society over the nature of the state and society and specifically, which cultural references – those of a francophone elite, or a more traditional majority, get to assert the ethical parameters of not only the Moroccan state, but more critically, Moroccan identity.

You can read the original article here 


Written by Myriam Francois

July 27, 2015 at 14:21

The Danger in Referring to ‘Asian’ Sex Gangs

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This piece was originally published over at the Huffington Post, here

‎”Asian gangs, schoolgirls and a sinister taboo” read the Daily Mail headline in November 2010, ‎‎”Muslim gang jailed for kidnapping and raping two girls as part of their Eid celebrations” states ‎another of its salacious headlines in April this year, while the typically more demure Telegraph ran ‎with “Asian grooming gangs, the uncomfortable issue”.

These headlines all refer to recent cases ‎involving sexually predatory gangs, the most recent of which, is the case of a group of men in Rochdale ‎found guilty of sexually abusing 47 vulnerable girls. The case has caused controversy as some ‎pundits claim the police failed to prosecute the men through fear they’d be branded racist. Former ‎MP Ann Cryer believes such fears meant that both the police and social services failed to act to ‎protect the girls and Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation urged the ‎police and the councils “not to be frightened to address this issue, there is a strong lesson that you ‎cannot ignore race or be over sensitive.”‎

The case has thrust the issue of race back into the spotlight just as the MET is being investigated for ‎mounting complaints about racism and as increasingly strident voices claim political correctness is ‎impeding an assessment of the role race plays in such crimes. Columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown ‎suggests as much as she writes she’s been “warned not to write” about such cases, for fear of ‎encouraging racism. “The rapists are all probably in one sense ‘good’ Muslims, praying and fasting ‎in the daytime, then prowling and preying at night”, she lambasted, ignoring as one commentator ‎pointed out that “the defendants in question are at most nominally Muslim”. Practising Muslims ‎certainly aren’t supposed to rape children.‎

Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee Keith Vaz claims that the issue has nothing to do with ‎race or being Asian. He cautioned of the dangers in singling out the Asian community and has advised prudence in using race-related terminology. ‎

The focus on isolating race as an explanatory variable in cases of sex-grooming ignores all other ‎factors and essentialises the identity of the culprits – it ignores why Asian men are over-‎represented in socio-economically poorer areas where street-grooming occurs and why white girls ‎are over-represented among vulnerable groups in such areas.‎

What’s more, plenty of sex-gangs are not Asian. Crime researchers Ella Cockbain and Helen Brayley ‎warned: “If on-street grooming continues to be reduced to the big Asian networks alone, a whole ‎host of other offenders will get overlooked.”

The sex slave trade in this country is sadly alive and ‎well and is not primarily Asian driven, and paedophiles are not overwhelmingly of Asian ethnic ‎backgrounds, suggesting any abhorrent link some may seek to make between race and inherent ‎sexually predatory behaviour is not born out by the facts.

Such a link is also reminiscent of racist ‎terminology used to refer to black gangs in the 1980s, particularly Jack Straw’s comment in January ‎last year relating to a separate case in Derby: “These young men are in a western society, in any ‎event, they act like any other young men, they’re fizzing and popping with testosterone, they ‎want some outlet for that…” His comment both singled the men out as ‘foreign’ by referring to ‎them as “in a western society”, rather than products of a society they were born and raised in, and ‎reduced their behaviour to physical urges, completely ignoring the dimension of power inherent ‎to rape, which is primarily a crime of violence, not sex. ‎

Some have referred to culturally specific terminology in order to claim that the view of some ‎women as worthless and thus open to abuse is restricted to certain communities. This ignores ‎power inequities based on gender manifest at every level of society and expressed through ‎different social and cultural idioms. Different terminology expresses a shared disdain for women, ‎inflected with culturally specific justifications: “sluts” “hoes” “gora” “skank” “cheap” “easy” – ‎sexism is not an ‘Asian’ issue, though it does of course affect Asians as it does everyone else – it is ‎sadly omnipresent, cross-culturally.‎

Those seeking to locate these crimes within some inherent Asian characteristic need to explain the ‎vast majority of law abiding Asian men, the diversity of Asian cultures, not culture and the fact the ‎Chief prosecutor who re-opened the case is himself an Asian Muslim, Nazir Afzal.‎

The treatment of this case is not about political correctness, it is about not stigmatising an entire ‎community based on a mis-identification of the explanatory variable in the crimes of this group of ‎men, who happen to be Asian.

Both the police and the judge appear to believe the race of the ‎victims and abusers was “coincidental”, so the real question is why as a society, we are seeking to ‎attribute a racial dimension to it and what that says about our unspoken racist assumptions ‎concerning Asian men.

Academic Vron Ware recounts that the black male has been historically ‎constructed as the antithesis of white femininity, sexually predatory upon white innocence and ‎beauty – we’d be naive not to notice the same rhetoric being played out now with Asian/Muslim ‎males…‎

Written by Myriam Francois

May 9, 2012 at 13:49

Porn-ing sex

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In a week in which a school teacher turned porn star is claiming no conflict between his different ‘professions’, the dissident voices which should be decrying the porn industry’s attempt to gain public credibility in order to further expand its cash driven debauchery into our daily lives, need to make themselves heard. Selling sex is dehumanizing. Glamourizing the sale of sex in the minds of young people who have yet to forge solid personal positions on their sexual views, is a travesty and a desecration of the powerful and intimate union which sex can potentially represent.

In “Living dolls: the return of Sexism”, Natasha Walters picks apart the modern myth that there is something empowering about selling sex, a la “Belle-de-Jour”.

Despite the fact statistics paint a rather bleak picture of women involved in the sex trade- 85% of prostitutes have reported physical abuse in the family, 45% familiar sexual abuse and a majority of prostitutes are lured into the industry before the age of 16- there has been a recent glamorization of prostitution in the mainstream. All the women in the surveys reported in Walters’ book have a problem with alcohol and a majority used hard drugs, with 84% citing drugs as their reason for going into prostitution. Mortality rates for prostitutes are six times higher than the general population. (p. 57-58) A world away from Miss S’s “confessions of a Working girl” with its allegedly “enjoyable” account of a prostitute’s life, packaged in a pastel covered paperback or Billie Piper’s sanitised account of a prostitute’s escapades, minus the inherent violence involved in an industry in which women are paid to put up and shut up while men enact their fantasies on silenced female bodies…

That prostitution or being a porn star are just another “career move”, made by sassy and smart women, in control of their lives who just happen to have a voracious appetite for sex, is just another of the necessary myths which fuel the exploitation of women. There is some irony in the fact the women paraded on the front cover of magazines as the height of female emancipation have spent a life time dedicated to the preening of their bodies to fulfil an elusive sexual ideal which demands starvation, surgery and discomfort.

The truth of the matter, as Walter’s books highlights is far removed from the myths perpetuated by the fastest growing industry in the world, which relies on people’s gradual acceptance of sexual imagery in the public sphere to normalise its product and expand its market reach.

With a reckless disregard for the women who make up its fodder, the porn industry is a money making machine which requires us to be duped into thinking women make free and informed choices about the sex trade in order to be able to counter the shrinking dissenting voices which challenge its claim to be an ‘acceptable’ industry. “The highly sexualised culture around us is tolerated and even celebrated because it rests on the illusion of equality.” (p119)

In order to convince us of the worth of porn, the industry has had to remove any emotion from sex, reducing it to mechanics, a calculated physical exchange for which cash can be traded. No talk of love, of union, of intimacy, of tenderness.
This reduction of sex to an act, rather than a state of love, is partly done by presenting empowering sex, as sex without emotional connection, devoid of feelings, so that “the way that absolutely uncommitted sexual encounters are spoken about now suggests that in order to become liberated, a rather cold promiscuity is the order of the day.” (p. 98)

It is also done by desensitising people to pornographic images through exposing them from younger and younger ages to increasingly lurid and violent sexual images. One survey in 2006 found that 40% of men had viewed pornographic websites in the previous year and more worrying still, a survey in Canada found that 90% of 13-14 year old boys and 70% of girls had viewed pornography. “More than one third of the boys reported viewing pornographic DVDs or videos ‘too many times to count’.” (p107) Speaking to porn addicts, Walters discovers that much of what they view appears to depict women in pain, being brutalised and dominated. In effect, sex as a form of violence against women, is the way in which an increasing number of men are gaining their sexual highs: “I think that kind of violence associated with sex lodges in your mind and you never forget it, however much you want to. It’s always there,” explained Jim (p. 115)

And this reductivism is also promoted through the fallacious argument that since women cannot eliminate porn due to its proclivity in the modern media, they ought instead to enter the porn industry and begin to make demands within it as consumers, which the argument goes, will shift their status from victim to consumer ( and hence empowered?! Only neo-liberal rhetoric could devise such a misguided connection between consumption and liberation…)

Giving voice to young women, Walters indicates that many “feel that their lives have been impoverished by the devaluation of sex into exchange and performance rather than mutual intimacy.” (p. 101) She also highlights feelings of inadequacy as young women’s bodies are compared to those in porn material and a growing dehumanization of sexual partners, viewed only as the sex objects portrayed in what has become the measure of a “normal” sexual encounter: “….too much pornography does still rely on or promote the exploitation or abuse of women. Even if you can find porn for women and couples on the internet, nevertheless a vein of real contempt for women characterises so much photography.”

That capitalism’s uniquely cold approach to profit over people has seeped into the most intimate part of our lives, our sexual relationships, is indicative of a grave sickness. Ultimately this comes down to a very simple economic equation. A billion dollar industry which continues to grow requires an increasingly large market for its goods. Moving from the fringes to the mainstream requires a cultural shift, acclimatisation to what makes us feel intuitively uneasy about porn, the market-value of sex, the cold mechanics devoid of the meeting of minds, which makes so many shudder. Sex as a calculated exchange must become normalised for the porn industry to expand its tentacles. And as in other industries, the younger you get’em hooked, the more likely they are to be lifetime consumers.

The real tragedy in the discussion we have today over sex, is the overarching materialism which permeates the debate. If we are mere animals, where’s the problem? If nothing is sacred, everything can be sold and bought. As talking heads discuss the banalities of an absurd ‘debate’ over the acceptability of porn, the fat cats running the industry must be cackling at all the free publicity. In placing so much market value on our bodies, we necessarily detract from the emphasis on the internal, the self, the person. The sex industry is in effect the epitome of materialism, the body has worth, the person has none. Sex has always sold, but how many of us realised the price was in fact our soul.

Written by Myriam Francois

September 1, 2011 at 21:22

Freedom from France’s Marianne

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The recent statement that France’s ruling party hopes to ban headscarves from all work places and schools, including when worn by the mothers of pupils (scarves being already banned since 2004) is just the latest attempt to unite France’s divided electorate in the face of a tired political class, lacking in imaginative ideas to address France’s very real problems. The announcement that former President Jacques Chirac is actually backing the Socialist candidate in France’s upcoming elections, rather than Sarkozy whom he technically shares a political affinity with, corroborates the fact France’s political scene is a very muddled place, where Muslim bashing, which plays to Far-Right tendencies, has replaced substantive political discussion. But what the focus on burkas and scarves and the length of some women’s dresses, also highlights is a continuing struggle by a minority of French women to broaden the nation’s distinctly narrow notion of femininity and feminine worth.

Each nation’s relationship to the “burka debate” seems to reflect to some degree a country specific take on gender roles and notions of femininity. In France, where it is taken as a given that a man has the “right” to view a woman’s body, where the naked female form routinely serves to advertise everything from yoghurt to perfume, and where not going topless on the beach is considered prudish, the idea that a woman might actually want to shield her body from such a gaze represents an affront to the “right” which has for so long been that of the country’s men – to see women, all of a woman. Naturally…(!)

People who usually like to proclaim that French women are just “naturally so slim” omit to note the reality of strong social pressure to conform to rigid, popular (and notably slim) notions of female worth – as represented by the country’s “icons” – be they actresses, (turned rabid far-right activists), like Brigitte Bardot, who at the height of her fame was known far more for her sex-appeal than her acting talent (the weight of her physique having been sufficient to carry her through the production of an album, despite her notable lack of singing ability…), politicians, like Rachida Dati, more famed for her alleged affairs with high profile figures and risqué outfits, than any single policy she might have helped devise, or news anchors, such as Mélissa Theuriau, known more for her looks than her journalistic abilities. In any society, ‘visible’ women, in other words those given a public platform – are manifestations of the cultural understanding of femininity and of female success. And there is no missing the overarching theme here.

The predominant message is that your looks are the primary vehicle for your success and may, in many cases, override any significant absence of talent. In a recent article in which she praised France’s attitude to older actresses compared to the UK and the USA, Kristen Scott-Thomas also discussed the fact she was asked to bare all in her latest film (something she seemed *really* enthused about “Obviously I haven’t done scenes like that for a very, very, very long time and I don’t think I’ll be doing them again anytime soon!”), suggesting the French have an appreciation of beauty which extends beyond 25. Or, another way to look at it, would be to say that women must continue to espouse an overtly sexual self-image, in order to have continued appeal past 25…

The implications of a cultural conception of femininity which places so much emphasis on sex appeal is that women who choose not to define themselves in accordance with that framework are derided, denigrated, and when they are already politically disenfranchised, socially and politically excluded. Indeed, Rachida Dati, who famously got the words “fellatio” and “inflation” mixed up in a radio interview, was the first female politician of North African origin to hold a top French government post. And mixing sex into the political equation may not have been the faux-pas many assumed it might be. After all, it hasn’t dented her public profile (dare I say it enhanced it…).

Since the demotion of the woman Sarkozy once heralded as France’s symbol of change, to the European court, female French politicians of North African descent are conspicuously absent. What this symbolically and possibly quite figuratively translates as, is wealthy, white men in power dictating to poorer, disenfranchised, non-white women, what the very definition of civility is ( a colonial ring there anyone!?). In the matter of what constitutes a ‘civilised’ woman, that equates to dictating to them when, and how much of their bodies, they should be making public. Was it really a surprise to anyone that the maid at the center of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn controversy has been identified as a Guinean immigrant, in other words an ‘uncivilised’ woman to whom sexual civility ought to be dictated – nay, imposed… (thankfully, what passes in France doesn’t always pass in America!). And supreme irony of ironies, the DSK case came to light the same week that a French court decided to deny a French woman’s husband citizenship on the basis of his “degrading attitude” towards women…

Civility when it comes to women’s issues, equates to dictating the acceptable boundaries of femininity and in this case, criminalising those who don’t wish to live up to the modern Marianne – who incidentally, the Association of French Mayors (AMF) named Brigitte Bardot as the first symbolic representation of – the current Marianne being the model Laeticia Casta…

The reality of the increasingly stringent laws being passed to prevent Muslim women from adhering to their religious convictions, is pervasive discrimination. Kenza Drider who has become the mouth piece for women who wear the face veil in France, states that prior to the President’s decision to take a public stance against the “burka”, she hadn’t experienced any discrimination because of it. In March this year, a school in the Paris suburbs threatened Muslim girls (and ONLY Muslim girls) with exclusion, for the shocking misdemeanour of wearing “long dresses”.

In many ways, these women are the reluctant pioneers of a feminist struggle to expand notions of femininity and move beyond the straight jacket of a Chanel attired, sexually alluring model or actress (or a politician that must look like one). And yet, in their struggle to define their own notion of femininity and escape the dominant one, they have received very little support from other women, or feminist organisations, whose uneasy relationship with what many view as a symbol of patriarchy, impedes their ability to listen to the women’s voices.

Kenza, who wears the veil for “spiritual reasons”, states: “This law incites people to violence against women who have made the choice to wear this garment.” Kenza claims she is insulted and subjected daily to tirades from fellow citizens who regard the public discourse and law, as a legitimation of their prejudice. “I won’t stay at home or take off the veil” she says, echoing what are in effect the two choices being afforded to a woman who wishes to remain true to her convictions. Speculating on what will happen when she does in effect, refuse to sit at the back of the bus, she responds: “I’ll be happy to take the fine in order to launch an appeal at the European court. This law is discriminatory, unconstitutional and turns people away from our real problems – how can you turn to a small group of French women and say, this is France’s problem.”

Despite the popularity of seminal books like the Beauty Myth (Naomi Wolf) and Female Chauvinist Pigs (Ariel Levy) in feminist circles, the question remains of just how many feminists will stand with Kenza and her compatriots, supporting their choice to challenge dominant norms of femininity and symbolically arguing for a recognition of women on terms which premise their value not on their looks, their weight, or their fashion, but on their value as human beings.

Written by Myriam Francois

June 14, 2011 at 22:27