What Arab women can teach us about love and desire
Under the hijab, Muslim women are far less sexually repressed than their Western counterparts think
WHAT does it mean to be sexually oppressed? I thought I had all the answers.
I thought the very symbol of female repression was in front of me, as I sat cross-legged before a young Arabic woman last week.
She was in a floor-length black hijab, I was in a low-hung black top and long red skirt.
Her hair was covered, mine hung freely around my shoulders.
She had never been with a man. I've had my share of fond - and somewhat hard- earned - memories with the opposite sex . . . from my first kiss, the year I turned 13, under a big sycamore tree in the hot summer sun, to the first time I had my heart broken at the age of 23.
I felt like I had a wealth of experience that she had never known. Something she needed to go through in order to say she'd fully lived.
It was simple: I felt she had the misfortune of growing up in a repressed society and I had not.
Yet we both looked at one another as though we had so much to learn.
I asked her if she has ever been tempted, if she ever missed the touch of a man.
"How can I miss the flavour of something I have never tasted?" she replied.
I had to admit it seemed erotic: what she would finally get to experience once she gave herself away to a man. Only her husband would ever get to see her hair, touch her bare skin, enjoy the feel of her naked body.
Meanwhile, she knew all about the world I had come from. The sensory overload we are gorging on back home. In magazines, on billboards, on TV. Guys sending on pictures of nude women to their friends, sating their appetites on a junk diet of porn until there's no room left for quality sexual experiences.
Nothing made this more transparent than the untouched celebrity photos recently leaked online, a chorus of men expressed their dismay at how dull they were. Real women don't live up to their expectations anymore - the man-made idea of perfection.
It's a long way from the Arabic culture, where sex remains behind closed doors. Here, the 'don't look, don't touch' philosophy applies and the tension in the air is palpable. Sex is sacred, anticipated, and when it does happen, it's celebrated.
Lingerie sales are booming. Behind their more modest clothes, nipple tassels and garters are unveiled to delight in bedrooms. The attitude is that women are not out there for every man in the world to look at, so they don't dress for the general public. But for their family and friends, they dress beautifully. They have magnificent hairstyles, they wear the most ornate jewellery and they love sexy lingerie.
And what about opportunity?
She asked me why western women have come to give their bodies away so easily. She wanted to know: "Are they really doing it for themselves?"
And the truth is, I couldn't defend it.
Let's face it, many women are sleeping with men these days for every reason under the sun other than sexual liberation. They are afraid of losing them, they get too drunk, drugged up, lonely, they want to be wanted, desired, loved. They feel they have to do it to get or keep his attention. And in it's most basic form, it's simply part and parcel of courting.
In the Western woman's fight for the sexual revolution, women became more like men than men themselves. But in Arabic countries, this young girl described how women were allowed to be women. And there was something comforting in it.
They know men desire sex more, that it's more difficult for them to obtain and that it's something they can gift. So they are incredibly discerning about it.
And there is an empowerment in this.
They are not afraid of the female emotions that come with sex. So why are we so ashamed?
Why do western women often hide their true feelings from the men they are sleeping with? Are they afraid they will scare them away? Push them towards other women who are willing to offer sex, no strings attached?
I had a flurry of questions - all of which were incredibly politically incorrect. But she lapped them up. She craved an opportunity to tear apart what she called the brainwashing of westernised women.
Bearing in mind she is a wealthy woman from an upper-class background, she is enjoying the type of life she hoped every Arabic woman could one day share.
And yes, there is plenty that Muslim women can learn from us too. And I was only too happy to share.
When a male tour guide asked me how I would react if my Arabic husband asked my permission to take another wife, I shrugged: "I'd tell him it was completely cool," much to his satisfaction.
"As long as he had no problem with me taking another Arabic man of course." His smile quickly disappeared.
Still, my new friend pointed out that, by law, men have to ask their wife's permission to take another woman. And to approve the bride he chooses. That would be fun in itself. And let's face it, we all know too many women that would only love to outsource their husbands for half the week.
Then the question of arranged marriage arose and it was at this juncture we parted company.
While she believed her parents knew best, I argued that love should be at the core of it. And the most liberated woman, no matter what part of the world she has to do so in, would always follow her heart.