Sex in Syria
June 24, 2011
I looked down doubtfully at the polo neck that I was being handed by my mother. It was a week before I was due to move to Syria and I had suddenly realised that my wardrobe was entirely inappropriate for the more conservative strictures of the Middle East so I was frantically trying to acquire a whole new, more ‘modest’ one. “Look Mama, I know I have to be covered-up but really? A polo neck?” Despite my reservations, I was cajoled into taking the questionable garment and found myself wearing it on my fourth night in Damascus to ward off the biting winter winds. But alas, it was on this night that my friend decided to drag me into one of Damascus’ trendiest clubs, where I was surrounded by freestyling rappers and beat-boxers and slim, scantily clad Syrian girls, gyrating to the music. Meanwhile, in my polo neck, I tried awkwardly to dance with my elbows glued to my sides in order to cover up the ever-growing sweat patches under my arms. This was not the Middle Eastern extravaganza I had been anticipating.
In continuation of this theme, a Syrian friend joked to me, “how can you tell the difference between a Syrian and a foreigner?” I gawped at him blankly. “A Syrian cares what he or she looks like.” I glanced down at my baggy jeans and billowing t-shirt and then around at the Syrian girls with their perfectly coiffed hair, flawless make-up and knee-high boots over figure-hugging jeans. I suddenly longed for my real wardrobe back in London. Who would have thought that in Syria I would be at the bottom of the pile in the glamour stakes?
I quickly became familiar with Syrian sexuality as I walked through the maze of souks in Damascus’ old city, where incredibly risqué lingerie jumped out at me from all sides, in blinding neon colours, animal forms, with flashing lights and a cacophony of sound. My personal favourite was the ladies’ knickers that fell off when you clapped your hands. I was starting to realise that a lot more was going on under the women’s long, shapeless coats than meets the eye.
As I delved further into the subject, I was informed by many of my Syrian friends that despite the conservative nature of Syrian society and the religio-cultural prohibition of pre-marital sex, that amongst the younger generations, especially the Damascenes, such ‘illicit affairs’ were becoming more and more common. “But where do they go?” I ask, since most Syrians live with their family until they get married and are not usually allowed to bring people of the opposite sex home with them, even for tea. My friend grins and takes me on a taxi ride up to Jebel Qassiyoun, the mountain that overlooks the glimmering lights of the city down below, from where the Prophet Mohammad allegedly gazed over Damascus and said that he could not go into the city because he could only enter Paradise once. Suddenly, I become aware of all the human-made dirt paths that lead to various niches in the rock formations of the mountain; ideal for secret liaisons and lovers’ trysts. No wonder it’s so popular and double the price to drive up to the mountain at night.
Formerly, it was mainly the upper classes of society who were indulging in pre-marital sex because they could afford the expensive, not to mention rather unpleasant and painful hymenoplasty; a surgical procedure that reconstructs the hymen so that patients are ‘revirginalised’ before their wedding night. These days, however, it is becoming more widespread for Syrians of all classes to participate in pre-marital sex, due to an ingenious new invention. The Chinese, ever cunning when it comes to spotting a lucrative gap in the market, have invented a relatively cheap device that is inserted into the vagina on the wedding night and broken upon penetration, releasing a fake blood-like substance and thereby ‘proving’ a woman’s chastity to her new husband. In a society where it is expected that women be virgins until they marry and where they can be beaten, divorced, disowned by the family and even killed if they are not, such an invention has revolutionised women’s sexual freedom in the Middle East. Of course, the gender discriminatory attitudes that render this sort of contraption necessary are still present but at least now women can have some degree of sexual autonomy, although this is still far from being in line with that of their male peers.
Despite this, many Syrians choose an alternative method of sexual expression before marriage. I was shocked to learn that most sexually active Syrian youths are participating exclusively in oral and anal sex, in order to preserve the sacrosanct symbol of virginity; the hymen. Indeed, when questioning one of my Syrian friends about his sexual relations with his girlfriend, I ask, “so, when you sleep with your girlfriend, you have anal sex, right?” “Of course,” he replies, “only the bitches have vaginal sex.” I find myself nodding dumbly, as if in agreement, and repeating in stupefaction, “that’s right, the bitches.”
I wonder how two cultures can be so different that there can be a total role reversal in ‘normal’ sexual behaviour. Although sodomy is reviled and condemned by Islam, the proliferation of anal sex reveals how Syrian society has developed to elevating the hymen to the ultimate proof of a woman’s ‘honour.’ So while mullahs sit self-satisfiedly extolling the virtues of Muslim purity and chastity, in comparison with the sinful indulgences of the ‘infidels’ in the West, I would like to warn them that the people of Sodom were not all destroyed in the time of Lot. They are returning to their ‘evil ways’ with renewed vigour and will continue to do so until women are granted the right to control their own bodies and to practise sex freely and without judgement or persecution.