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Veiled Pornography: Patterns and Consumption of Pornography in the Middle East

Veiled Pornography: Patterns and Consumption of Pornography in the Middle East

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Published by Dr Steven McDermott
The veil is not just religious symbol; it is a political and social tool that carries a host of meanings. Thus the incorporation of the veil into Arab-produced amateur and professional pornographic material calls into question many issues concerning agency, sexual mores, and symbolic violence in the Middle East. In my paper, I will examine the trend of munaqqabah (veiled) pornography, and will review some of the statistics related to the consumption of pornography specific to the region as a whole. In doing so, some indicative conclusions regarding the effects of the worsening socio-economic situation for Arab youth will be made; I also hope to inspire further research into this neglected area.

Pornography is considered immoral by the vast majority of people and institutions in the Middle East. And yet there is considerable evidence that for certain segments of the population- namely males between the ages of 15-30- pornography is widely consumed and even produced. For example, Egypt typically ranks among the top countries searching the Internet for the term “sex”; a 2007 survey found that 70 percent of files on Saudi Arabian teenager’s phones were pornographic in nature. These statistics echo wider regional trends concerning the consumption of pornographic material. Furthermore, the amount of amateur pornography being produced and disseminated from the region has been steadily growing thanks to file sharing websites and other technology like video-enabled mobile phones.

The vast majority of pornography comes from web-based sources. Given the language barrier that prohibits many Middle Eastern Internet users from accessing western-based pornographic websites, a number of Arabic-language message boards and chat sites have been set up to fill this gap. Users to these sites not only post western-produced pornography, but are increasingly posting material specific to the region; it is on these sites that one can find munaqqabah pornography easily.

When reviewing munaqqabah pornography, it becomes clear that the veil serves both practical purposes and as a sexualized object. Indeed, given the loaded nature of the veil, it can be seen in direct opposition to the prevailing institutional and social status-quo. Munaqqabah pornography comes in a variety of forms, from video clips that are passed between mobile phones to still photos posted on message boards. And while some are clearly western in origin (a veiled, naked women dressed as a suicide bomber for example), most appear to be specific to the region.

If we analyze munaqqabah pornography in context, troubling issues appear. Although the argument can be made that munaqqabah pornography is not inherently dangerous, it is often situated in the midst of highly misogynistic and violent western pornography. Secondly, the regional gender restrictions have severely limited the amount of contact between the sexes. Thus, it is plausible that for many Arab youth, pornography one of the main sources of sexual socialization. Combined with the social and economic marginalization emblematic of Arab youth, and an incredibly problematic situation is evident- youth have very few sexual options, outlets or healthy resources for sexual knowledge.

Sarah Michelle Leonard worked in law enforcement for five years in Seattle, Washington before moving to Egypt where she is currently completing a degree in Anthropology and Islamic Studies at the American University in Cairo. She is also studying Arabic, and her fieldwork interests include Islamic funerary ritual and the pornography of and about the Middle East.
The veil is not just religious symbol; it is a political and social tool that carries a host of meanings. Thus the incorporation of the veil into Arab-produced amateur and professional pornographic material calls into question many issues concerning agency, sexual mores, and symbolic violence in the Middle East. In my paper, I will examine the trend of munaqqabah (veiled) pornography, and will review some of the statistics related to the consumption of pornography specific to the region as a whole. In doing so, some indicative conclusions regarding the effects of the worsening socio-economic situation for Arab youth will be made; I also hope to inspire further research into this neglected area.

Pornography is considered immoral by the vast majority of people and institutions in the Middle East. And yet there is considerable evidence that for certain segments of the population- namely males between the ages of 15-30- pornography is widely consumed and even produced. For example, Egypt typically ranks among the top countries searching the Internet for the term “sex”; a 2007 survey found that 70 percent of files on Saudi Arabian teenager’s phones were pornographic in nature. These statistics echo wider regional trends concerning the consumption of pornographic material. Furthermore, the amount of amateur pornography being produced and disseminated from the region has been steadily growing thanks to file sharing websites and other technology like video-enabled mobile phones.

The vast majority of pornography comes from web-based sources. Given the language barrier that prohibits many Middle Eastern Internet users from accessing western-based pornographic websites, a number of Arabic-language message boards and chat sites have been set up to fill this gap. Users to these sites not only post western-produced pornography, but are increasingly posting material specific to the region; it is on these sites that one can find munaqqabah pornography easily.

When reviewing munaqqabah pornography, it becomes clear that the veil serves both practical purposes and as a sexualized object. Indeed, given the loaded nature of the veil, it can be seen in direct opposition to the prevailing institutional and social status-quo. Munaqqabah pornography comes in a variety of forms, from video clips that are passed between mobile phones to still photos posted on message boards. And while some are clearly western in origin (a veiled, naked women dressed as a suicide bomber for example), most appear to be specific to the region.

If we analyze munaqqabah pornography in context, troubling issues appear. Although the argument can be made that munaqqabah pornography is not inherently dangerous, it is often situated in the midst of highly misogynistic and violent western pornography. Secondly, the regional gender restrictions have severely limited the amount of contact between the sexes. Thus, it is plausible that for many Arab youth, pornography one of the main sources of sexual socialization. Combined with the social and economic marginalization emblematic of Arab youth, and an incredibly problematic situation is evident- youth have very few sexual options, outlets or healthy resources for sexual knowledge.

Sarah Michelle Leonard worked in law enforcement for five years in Seattle, Washington before moving to Egypt where she is currently completing a degree in Anthropology and Islamic Studies at the American University in Cairo. She is also studying Arabic, and her fieldwork interests include Islamic funerary ritual and the pornography of and about the Middle East.

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Published by: Dr Steven McDermott on Oct 11, 2008
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Veiled Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Porn in Middle EastSarah Michelle Leonard, The American University in Cairo
Dichotomies and contradictions abound when living in the Middle East. Nevertheless, I was wholly unprepared to walk into a party in suburban Cairo to find a pornographic film being projected onto a wall. But what truly shocked me was that theactress was wearing a
niqaab
1
  just as some women outside the compound were. Clearlythis was no average party, or porno. “Where was this film made?” I asked one of myhosts. “Qatar,” she replied.Pornography is more widespread than many people would like to admit; it isn’tsurprising that it exists in the Middle East. But given that most of the population andinstitutions consider it to be highly immoral, both the levels of consumption and the presence of a pornographic industry do come as a surprise. This paper will examine theconsumption of pornography in the Middle East, as well as the specific trend of veiled(
munaqqabah)
pornography in hopes of inspiring further research into this neglectedarea.As much of my research and sources were focused in and around Cairo, Egypt, itwill be my primary reference point
2
. However, I have chosen to include data from other 
1
A
niqaab
is a type of veil that covers the entire face. Typically, women who wear the
niqaab
are entirelycovered from head to foot, even wearing dark gloves and stockings to make sure that no skin is shown.Women who wear the niqaab are known as
munaqqabah
(pl.
munaqqabat 
). In the case of this particular  pornographic film, the
niqaab
covered the women’s face to her shoulders leaving her naked from the chestdown.
2
I wish to thank Maria Dayton for the initial idea for this paper and Dr. Adrienne Pine for her help andguidance in writing it. Moreover, without the considerable assistance of David Bentor, Yaqeen Fouad,Ahmad Hassan, Ibrahim Nasher , and several other informants, this paper would have been impossible.
1
 
Middle Eastern countries to in order to further illustrate my conclusions
3
. Likewise, mydefinition of pornography remained somewhat flexible when gathering sources; if myinformants considered it porn, I included it in my sample. All of my informants weremen, with oldest being thirty-seven, the youngest eighteen, and the rest in their mid-twenties. All were native speakers of 
 
Arabic.
Consumption of Pornography in the Middle East
The vast majority of pornography I encountered was in digital rather than physicalform; only one of my informants had any printed material, and it was brought back fromAmerica. Thus my informants collected pornography from four sources- satellitetelevision, pirated DVDs, the internet, and off of mobile phones.Thanks to satellite dishes, it is possible to find ultra-religious Saudi televisionchannels next to racy call-in peep shows beamed from Eastern Europe. Browsing mysatellite channels in March of 2008, I counted 63 channels dedicated to religious issues(including several representing various Christian denominations) and 17 channels thatoffered some sort of explicitly sexual content. However, many of my sources reportedthat they only infrequently watched these channels, citing the fact that their televisionwas in a public area of the house
4
.For informants who had private access to a computer, the internet and piratedDVDs were by far the more popular means of watching or gaining pornographic material;
3
Although it is important to note that the Middle East is anything but homogenous, there are enoughcommonalties within certain segments of the population (primarily urban males, aged 15-25) that use theinternet and other technology to view pornography to warrant this inclusion. Additionally, many of myinformants have lived or spent considerable time in other Middle Eastern countries, and thus were able to provide commentary on the region as a whole.
 
4
In 2000, an Egyptian film was made about this very issue.
 Film Thaqafi
(Cultural Film) followed threefriends, who being clueless about how to approach girls, get a porno and then try to find a place to watch itwithout any success.
2
 
their collections also tended to be larger and contained more western-based pornography.However, if they had to use a computer in a public place, such as an internet café, their collections were centred on what they could fit on their mobile phone or flash drive, andmostly came from Arab-based sources.Although only around twenty percent of people have access to the internet in theMiddle East, the growing plethora of internet cafes has allowed a greater number of  people to access the internet then ever before.
5
The media of any society showcases their constructed values concerning ideals, taboos, and otherness; in the case of pornography, itoften touches upon a culture’s most controversial and transgressive topics. By examiningthe pornography of, and about
6
the Middle East, we gain access into a sphere thatnormally remains hidden. So, what is the internet being used for? According to GoogleTrends, Egyptians regularly google the word “sex” more than any other nationality, nomean feat considering the limited number of users
7
. Indeed, it has been hypothesized that
5
This compares to slightly over forty percent of the US/Europe. See Jerry Ropelato, “Internet Use Statics”http://internet-filter-review.toptenreviews.com/internet-pornography-statistics.html and “Internet WorldStats” http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats1.htm Accessed on September 1, 2008.
6
Western nations are just as fascinated with the idea of “Middle Eastern” or “Arab” sex; I found quite afew pornographic sites specifically geared toward a western audience featuring topics like “Arab StreetHookers” or “Saudi Submissive Mistresses”. My personal favorite however, was a site that featured pharaonic fantasies and featured the actors in period costumes. It would be of considerable interest to do acomparison of western sourced “arab” pornography versus middle eastern sourced “arab” pornography.Regardless of audience however, I was disturbed at just what level the “arab” or “muslim” women weresexually fetishized. The phrase “Muslim women” in Google Images brought up pictures of naked yet veiledwomen; a similar result did not occur when I googled Jewish or Christian women.
7
Moreover, Google Arabic was the number one language to search for the term “sex”. It is interesting tonote that the users used the English word “sex” (sometimes transliterated as سك ) rather than the Arabicterm “سنج”. When using the term “سنج”, Egypt ranked 5
th
, with the metropolitan areas of Alexandria, Cairoand Giza all being in the top ten cities searching for the term. See Reuters, “Sex, Nazi, burrito and Viagra:Who Googles what?”(October 17, 2007)
(accessed March 11, 2008) and GoogleTrends, “Trend History Sex” (March 11
th
, 2008) 
 (accessed March 11, 2008),and Google Trends, “Trend History سنج”. 
(accessedMarch 11, 2008).
3

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