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It's Not Haram, But They Might Not Understand It

Samia ‘Abd al-Rahman's daughter, Nadia, was in the ninth grade when I first met her in 1989. She resembled Samia both in appearance and in dress, since she had been a muhaggaba since puberty. “Girls biyithaggibu [don higab] when they first get their period,” Samia explained, naturalizing her daughter's experience despite the fact that most Egyptian women today have made that choice later in their lives. Just as in her younger days, when learning about Islam was just as natural as getting tall, Nadia had always remained a good girl, her mother said, who never had to be coaxed or prodded to do the right thing. “Except,” she remembered,

about six months ago, she said to me, I have friends who are boys, why don't I call them on the phone, or have them call me. At first I said, don't call them, and don't let them call you. It's not haram, but they might not understand it, and might think the wrong thing.

And she said to me, well, you have male friends, and you talk to them on the phone, and they come over here and talk to you, why can't I do the same? I told her that it was because I had chosen these friends, and I trusted them, and that I am mature enough and experienced enough to know how to handle the situation if something isn't correct. She said to me, but in Islam, there's halal and haram, and if it's not the one, you shouldn't do it.

We went on like that, and I said that if she called them, the family of the boy might not understand, and so on. She finally solved the problem herself, by saying, I will not speak to him anymore, and he will not speak to me, because I think I love him, but he's in love with another girl. Now, since she's a teenager, she's very anti-men. They're all dirty, she says, and they just don't deserve to be paid attention to. Now she makes my days black, because when my friends call, she says I shouldn't speak to them!

I'm very frank in dealing with Nadia. I tell her things directly, and don't approach things by indirect ways. So I told her, it's haram to kiss boys or let them kiss you. And she said, Mama! How can you talk about things like this? But you know, at her age, boys and girls are always touching and pulling at each other, and slapping, and so on. She does shake hands with men. But on the schoolbus that she takes, she has seen some girls sitting in the laps of the boys, and was shocked by that.[6]

Nadia, turning against her mother the adolescent's universal sensitivity to discrepancies between theory and its application, was practicing with a rhetorical power aimed at asserting her own status as an arbiter of culture and custom.[7] Manipulating and experimenting with the discourse of absolutes, she claimed a position of superiority when her life circumstances changed and a plausible interpretation of Islamic gender segregation made a virtue of her necessity. Such disputes and negotiations over the nature of rules (“it's not haram, but…”), where rules apply (“she does shake hands with men”) and—most importantly—who can apply them (“now, when my friends call, she says I shouldn't speak to them!”), are as common between age grades as they are between political, ethnic, gender, or class rivals.

As in the home, schools deal with the potentials and problems of young teens by continuing to present them with models of proper behavior. Sex is approached gingerly in the religion curriculum for students like Nadia. It is confined, in the preparatory schoolbooks, to a single dialogue in which a teacher condemns youths' harassing comments to young women on the street.[8] Deeper consideration of sex and marriage is postponed until the final year of secondary school, when the issues of engagement, marriage, and the rearing of children enter the religion curriculum. In Cairo the average age of marriage for both men and women is rising steadily as it takes longer and longer each year for struggling families to save or borrow the money to finance a marriage. Marriage expenses include not only payments by the groom and the bride's accumulation of a suitable trousseau, but the celebration itself and the acquisition of an apartment in an artificially tight housing market. As Diane Singerman has shown, the investments families make in the marriage of their children are often the largest capital outlays of their lives. The prolonged period between physical maturity and marriage, together with family pressures that discourage the free association between young men and women, is stressful for everyone, particularly because families count on their reputations for upright behavior to attract suitable marriage partners for their children when the time comes.[9]

Since the reproduction of the family is at the center of everyday political and economic activities for most Egyptians, as well as being in theory the primary basis for a true Muslim society, schoolbooks depict marriage as one of God's principal intentions for humankind. Books advise young people to select their companions for religious and moral values rather than superficial qualities like looks or wealth.[10] While textbooks do not delineate the precise extent of parental responsibility in the choice of spouses for their children, they do advise that men and women at least be able to see each other before the engagement, even if the sunna restricts this viewing to the girl's face and hands, with conversation conducted in the presence of a mahram (a male relative of the woman not eligible to marry her).[11] In fact, although restrictions are hardly ever quite so draconian, the interactions of young people both before and after their engagements are closely monitored by relatives and constitute a frequent trigger for family quarrels, gossip, and public comment.[12]

Textbook discussions of family life cover the legal conditions of engagement and marriage, the legal rituals involved in their completion, and the respective rights of husband and wife. As in much of Islamic political writing, the rights of marriage partners are expressed as duties owed to them by other parties, in this case, their mates. Thus, the husband's rights include the expectation that his wife will obey him, manage the household, raise the children properly, and support the family emotionally. She bears the responsibility neither to leave nor to invite people into her husband's house without his permission (either general or specific), a custom of wrenching significance for women moving some distance from their extended families. The rights of the wife include her husband's payment of brideprice, and his financial support for her and her children, along with a suitable residence, sexual intimacy, sympathy, care and cooperation, all after the model of the Prophet's marriages. For young people who cannot marry for reasons of health, disposition, or finance, the Ministry of Education offers the Prophet's advice that fasting helps overcome carnal desires by strengthening control over the conscience and helping one transcend appetites that might otherwise lead to the sin of an unlawful “natural relationship” (‘alaqa tabi‘iyya).[13]

According to Egyptian pundits, the moral confusion responsible for premarital sexual activity, as well as social problems like street violence and drug use, can be traced to a variety of insidious influences. These include not only a staggeringly uneven economy where unemployment and inflationary pressures strangle family income in the face of continually rising expectations, but also the impact of globalized popular culture. Critiques of Egyptian cultural policy, which mandates the centralized monitoring and censorship of radio, film, television, and print production, and the regulation of imported films, videos, and music, cluster around three perspectives. While some critics decry the tendency to look abroad for popular culture when it could be produced more authentically at home, others target sex and violence in entertainment media either as psychologically harmful in general, or specifically as corruptions emanating from “the West.”

Arguing on the basis of economic as much as cultural independence, some newspaper columnists have asked, Why do Egyptians not manufacture girls' dolls named ‘Aisha to compete with Barbie? Why do Mickey Mouse and Tom and Jerry usurp the rightful place of Kalila wa Dimna (a popular pair of Arabic folktale characters)?[14] While Egypt is a prolific producer of soap operas,[15] most local products are outshone both in production quality and in popularity by American serials like Dallas, Knot's Landing, and Falcon Crest. Heavily edited for Egyptian viewing, these shows nevertheless saturate the airwaves with images of the wealthy, the decadent, and the promiscuous (albeit wealthy, decadent and promiscuous extended families often living in joint households, which partially accounts for their fascination: it is the social world of the Egyptian family with both its economic resources and its values precisely reversed). These shows are a constant subject not only of friendly conversations, but of newspaper editorials and letters, like this one in al-Ahram, written by the superintendent of geography at a private secondary school in Alexandria:

Great throngs of viewers have developed a powerful infatuation with [Falcon Crest], the proof of which is the increase in the length of commercials preceding it! It's certain that this series is nothing but a summons destructive and ruinous to every standard. For it deals, with great charm and detail, with how to murder one's brothers, and how to carry out wife-swapping with ease, and how to hatch every kind of vile and base plot! [It shows] how forbidden affections are open and public and acceptable to everybody, and practiced by everybody!! All this without any obstacle from religion or human nature or conscience.

After extolling the show's lavish production values, acting, photography, and the wardrobe of the stars, which is provided by “some of the trendiest fashion houses in the world,” the author demands,

Is this series a devastating cultural assault intended to infiltrate without awareness the subconscious of our youth and our daughters and our wives? Or is it a hidden appeal for the disintegration of values and the decay of society? And where is the supervision of all this? Of course I don't have official censorship in mind, for that has allowed its presentation…on the contrary, I contemplate supervision by the conscience of the nation [damir al-’umma] as represented by venerable men of religion and social scientists and the greatest intellectuals and writers and critics.…In general I call on all the viewers of this series to delve deeply into its contents and to perceive for themselves its danger and its aim: that it is, as I believe myself, deadly poison covered in the sweetest wrapping![16]

This sort of cultural critique, familiar to Americans in the conservative post-Reagan era, is an important reflection of a growing worldwide debate about the social, psychological and moral effects of market-based cultural production. Another columnist reminds the public that “We owe it to our children not to leave their enculturation to chance and dim-sightedness, and then to complain that among them are young addicts and deviants from our values.” [17] Medical experts counsel the public that media images can disrupt the balance between good and evil within a person, potentially triggering outbursts of random violence, as demonstrated by a press report of a young Australian man who wounded two dozen people in Melbourne after a rampage induced by seeing the movie Rambo. According to Dr. Muhammad Sha‘lan, professor of psychiatry at al-Azhar,

Sometimes artistic works contradict what is within a certain person living in certain circumstances, and the two are thrown together and cause an explosion…this doesn't mean that the artistic works are responsible, but if the works gave admirable models in leading roles, this person would have imitated a good model rather than a bad model like Rambo; these days violence is getting the better of us; violence in art and violence in life. We used to watch “Cinderella,” and now karate films are what we watch.[18]

Other mental health professionals concur. Dr. Sayyid Subhi, a professor of mental health and therapy at ‘Ain Shams, and chair of the Psychology Department at the College of Education in Medina in Saudi Arabia, argues that the victory of self-centered values in modern society, a condition he refers to as “moral retardation” (al-i‘aqa al-khuluqiyya; or “absence of conscience,” ghiyab al-damir), results from noncommitment to religious morals. It manifests itself in, among other things, the spread of drug addiction among Egyptian youth.[19] This is not a discourse rejecting “the West,” but a discourse questioning the nature of “modern society” as such. Often it contrasts a culture anchored in religious values with a culture that has lost its spiritual moorings, a culture become coarse, uncivil, and obsessed by cultural products organized around images of undomesticated (unmarried) sex and (nonmilitary and thus unpatriotic) violence.

The third critical response goes beyond encouraging cultural self- sufficiency or rejecting psychologically damaging entertainment, to foreground the specific cultural differences that distinguish an ideal Muslim society from the mores of Euroamerican society. Islamic critics, in particular, accuse the government of promulgating cultural and educational policies that are not only inconsistent, but positively harmful. While Islamic behavior is emphasized in religion textbooks and political speeches, it is obviously not a feature of Sylvester Stallone epics, nor, the critics say, is it even encouraged across the school curriculum. In a 1989 exposé in al-Nur, the weekly organ of Egypt's tiny Liberal Party, ‘Adil al-Ansari castigated the Ministry of Education and the administration of al-Azhar's secondary institutes for allowing the use of history books that delete mention of the great Muslim victories against the Mongols and Crusaders, and, even worse, the use of English language texts that portray “unveiling and the mixing of the sexes.” Al-Ansari reviewed several cases in which stories and dialogues present Egyptian and European women “unveiled and adorned”; parties and nights on the town in which men and women—both Egyptian and foreign—mix freely and stay out dancing “until three in the morning.” There were pictures of women at hairstylists, or sitting on the ground with hair and knees exposed, and in one instance a mosque in an illustration was complimented for its archaeological rather than its religious significance.

In a final example al-Ansari invoked a story told in the second-year secondary English textbook, in which an English businessman is invited to the apartment of Ibrahim, an Egyptian. Before coming to visit, the Englishman stops to buy flowers for the lady of the house, with her husband's full knowledge: “And when he goes to the home [of his friend], Layla the Egyptian opens [the door] to him and she is unveiled, and she greets this foreign man freely and he gives her the roses and she thanks him and brings him food amidst broad smiles.” [20] From the point of view of the religious activist, the breathless pornographic intent of these examples is clear. They are not merely descriptions of the interactions of English-speaking Egyptians and foreigners (some of the episodes take place abroad, in Lebanon and London, for example), but they are “a clear call to unveiling,” dancing, movie-going, and the mixing of the sexes. Description is perceived as exhortation. Critiques like this are commonplace in the popular press, arguing against the moral laxity of the elites who administer communications and schooling. In this particular case, the article referred to the use of these textbooks in al-Azhar secondary institutes, hinting that even the official religious elites do not have the nation's moral health at heart.

The discursive strategy of such critiques, and of much mainstream reporting as well, is what historian Laurence Moore has called “moral sensationalism,” [21] a strategy widespread in the nineteenth-century United States, where the growing market for written material stimulated publishers to attract wide audiences, and simultaneously drew a sharp response from Christian religious denominations who condemned the salacious content apparently demanded by the masses. In response, writers for mass audiences portrayed themselves as religious messengers and developed a hybrid style in which they could pander to public prurience by recounting in graphic detail the worst kinds of personal and social outrages (drunkenness, gambling, fornication, rape, and murder), for the purposes of criticizing lapses in public morality and the coarsening of public discussion. In both the Christian and Muslim traditions, this strategy has been one of the prime mechanisms moving public religious discourse from concern with doctrine and legal minutiae to concern with abstract moral questions.[22] No longer is religious writing expected to be purely exegesis, legal interpretation, or instruction in ritual performance. Now it can comment on political events, gender roles, or sensational crimes, and still bear a useful moral message. The economic imperatives of mass-produced print force a two-way syncretism in which religious themes benefit from the selling power of suggestiveness, while bawdy or violent themes are partly legitimized by their attendant religious critique. The market in cultural goods steadily alters the corpus of “Islamic” literature by predisposing some kinds of communications rather than others. Related to this transformation of journalistic style is the role university professors, physicians, and mental health specialists play in publicly and authoritatively encouraging religious adherence as a remedy for social and moral disintegration. Whereas in the last chapter we encountered the functionalization of religious practices in the context of teaching religion, here we find it in the context of explaining social and psychological problems. The same rhetorical process that lent medical legitimation to the wudu’ operates here as well: promotion of religion by disinterested secular professionals can be more compelling than the testimony of ‘ulama.

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