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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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1 Veiled Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Porn in Middle East

Sarah 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 the actress was wearing a niqaab1 just as some women outside the compound were. Clearly this was no average party, or porno. “Where was this film made?” I asked one of my hosts. “Qatar,” she replied. Pornography is more widespread than many people would like to admit; it isn’t surprising that it exists in the Middle East. But given that most of the population and institutions 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 the consumption of pornography in the Middle East, as well as the specific trend of veiled (munaqqabah) pornography in hopes of inspiring further research into this neglected area. As much of my research and sources were focused in and around Cairo, Egypt, it will be my primary reference point2. However, I have chosen to include data from other

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A niqaab is a type of veil that covers the entire face. Typically, women who wear the niqaab are entirely covered 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 chest down. 2 I wish to thank Maria Dayton for the initial idea for this paper and Dr. Adrienne Pine for her help and guidance 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.

2 Middle Eastern countries to in order to further illustrate my conclusions3. Likewise, my definition of pornography remained somewhat flexible when gathering sources; if my informants considered it porn, I included it in my sample. All of my informants were men, with oldest being thirty-seven, the youngest eighteen, and the rest in their midtwenties. 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 physical form; only one of my informants had any printed material, and it was brought back from America. Thus my informants collected pornography from four sources- satellite television, pirated DVDs, the internet, and off of mobile phones. Thanks to satellite dishes, it is possible to find ultra-religious Saudi television channels next to racy call-in peep shows beamed from Eastern Europe. Browsing my satellite channels in March of 2008, I counted 63 channels dedicated to religious issues (including several representing various Christian denominations) and 17 channels that offered some sort of explicitly sexual content. However, many of my sources reported that they only infrequently watched these channels, citing the fact that their television was in a public area of the house4. For informants who had private access to a computer, the internet and pirated DVDs 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 enough commonalties within certain segments of the population (primarily urban males, aged 15-25) that use the internet and other technology to view pornography to warrant this inclusion. Additionally, many of my informants 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 three friends, who being clueless about how to approach girls, get a porno and then try to find a place to watch it without any success.

3 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, and mostly came from Arab-based sources. Although only around twenty percent of people have access to the internet in the Middle 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, it often touches upon a culture’s most controversial and transgressive topics. By examining the pornography of, and about6 the Middle East, we gain access into a sphere that normally remains hidden. So, what is the internet being used for? According to Google Trends, Egyptians regularly google the word “sex” more than any other nationality, no mean feat considering the limited number of users7. Indeed, it has been hypothesized that

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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 World Stats” 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 a few pornographic sites specifically geared toward a western audience featuring topics like “Arab Street Hookers” 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 a comparison 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 were sexually fetishized. The phrase “Muslim women” in Google Images brought up pictures of naked yet veiled women; 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 to note that the users used the English word “sex” (sometimes transliterated as ‫ ) سكس‬rather than the Arabic term “‫ .”جنس‬When using the term “‫ ,”جنس‬Egypt ranked 5th, with the metropolitan areas of Alexandria, Cairo and 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) http://www.reuters.com/article/technologyNews/idUSPAR75016820071017?sp=true (accessed March 11, 2008) and Google Trends, “Trend History Sex” (March 11th, 2008) http://www.google.com/trends?q=sex (accessed March 11, 2008), and Google Trends, “Trend History ‫ .”جنس‬http://www.google.com/trends?q=%D8%AC%D9%86%D8%B3 (accessed March 11, 2008).

4 as much as 80 percent of the total internet traffic from Arab countries is directed towards sexually explicit web sites8. Examining what people use the internet for also raises interesting questions about the differences in behaviour between the so-called “public” and “private” spheres. The anonymity of the internet gives its users license to view otherwise shameful or dangerous objects with relative impunity; once again, the Middle East dominates many sex related searches9. This trend may relate to the fact that for many in the Middle East, the safest way to get sex-related material is the internet. However, the types of sexual content that people are searching for in the Middle East are striking in terms of violating cultural taboos10. For example, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia typically rank among the top three nations searching for the terms “ass sex” and “man sex”; Egypt, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all usually in the top five for “sexy child”, whereas “animal sex” generates the most hits from Egypt, Pakistan, Morocco, and Turkey. By contrast, Western nations out-search the Middle East for terms such as “teen sex”, “porn”, “blow job” and “dead sex”; Asian nations tend to rank highly for terms like “rape” or “forced sex”11.
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See Wired.com, “1001 Arabian Nights of Sex”. (accessed March 11, 2008).

http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2001/04/43243?currentPage=all 9

These statistics are frequently mentioned in the blogosphere; it is topic of great concern on many prominent Muslim and Islamic blogs, which feature cautionary tales of broken marriages and relationships due to pornography addiction within the Ummah. See for example Ahmad S, “Pornography Addiction Among Muslims”. August 19, 2007, http://muslimmatters.org/2007/08/19/pornogrpahy-addictionamong-muslims-stories-tips/ (accessed March 11, 2008) and Rafik Beekun, “Pornography (Part 1): Disturbing Statistics for Muslim Countries”. February 14, 2007, http://makkah.wordpress.com/2007/02/14/pornography-part-1-disturbing-statistics-for-muslimcountries/ (accessed March 11, 2008). It is important to note that the language barrier may skew these results. For example, another search term common for North Africa and Egypt is “bird sex”. On the surface, it sounds rather damninguntil one translates it over into what you might hear on the street. Larger women are commonly greeted with the phrase “yaa bu’ta” (or duck), which could conceivably be translated into English as “bird sex”. Thus motives can be hard to ascertain; users could be searching for either sex with birds, or sex with large .women 11 See Google Trends.

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5 Professional pornographic sites in Arabic are virtually non-existent12; most of my sources of “Arab” porn came from sites that featured extensive message boards in which users could post pornographic pictures, link to videos, read explicit stories or chat with other members13. In addition, the majority of these sites had areas related to non-sexual content such discussions centred on sports or music. The internet is not the only way in which pornographic material is disseminated. Mobile phones have become a popular way of sharing and creating explicit content. A 2007 study done by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia found that almost 70 percent of all files on teenagers’ mobile phones are pornographic in nature, a fact that reflects the reality that youths primarily use their mobiles to break through gender and social constraints14. When discussing this phenomenon with my interlocutors in Cairo, many had admitted to seeing or having content of a sexual nature on their phones. Pornographic material is also traded among friends, and can be bought on the street cheaply; DVDs with 8 to 10 video clips go from 20 to 60 pounds each15. However, when buying off of the street there is very little say as to the type of content. Most that I saw featured hardcore Western pornography, with at most one or two of the clips featuring Arab or non-western actors. However, one DVD contained a humorous

12

There are a few exceptions to this. Most notably, several Israeli pornographic sites have translated their content into Arabic after seeing how many hits they received from Arab countries. Ironically, most of these nations have banned all Israeli websites, and users must have ISP filtering programs in order to view the sites. See Ali Jaafar, “Porn site fosters Mideast relations”. August 24, 2007, http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117970851.html?categoryid=2525&cs=1 (accessed March 11, 2008). 13 In addition to free sites like youporn.com and redtube.com (which feature almost exclusively western content) the most popular Arabic language sites for sharing pornographic material I encountered were banatfun.com, s7lb.com, jartna.com, za3ror.com, and milta1.com. 14 See P.K. Abdul Ghafour, “Bluetooth Used Mostly for Swapping Porn”. April 25, 2007, http://www.arabnews.com/?page=1&section=0&article=95420&d=25&m=4&y=2007 (accessed March 11, 2008) and See Pandeli M Glavanis, “Middle East Youth Media Initiative”. Unpublished thesis for AlKarma Edutainment, 2008; 46. 15 The equals out to around 3.50 to 11 dollars per DVD.

6 exception; on it was an animated spoof of the Disney film “Aladdin” in which the Princess Jasmine has sex with the evil sorcerer Jafaar rather than the hero Aladdin. Munaqqabah Pornography I came across two types of munaqqabah pornography; pictures and video clips. Of those, pictures were by far the most common form of munaqqabah pornography. Some shots were clearly posed; others appeared to be candid shots taken during a sex act. Of the twenty-seven images that I collected, only four featured men and women together; in two of those, only male body parts could be seen. I also found one picture that featured two women kissing. The remaining twenty-two pictures showed women in various explicit poses, with differing levels of nudity. Three of the pictures contained no nudity, rather showing women in swimwear or bikinis16; on the other end of the spectrum, seven shots featured the women totally nude except for the niqaab. An additional seven pictures showed women wearing some form of lingerie that either revealed their breasts or pubic region. Five pictures featured only the women’s head, with semen on the niqaab or veil. For the most part, the wearing of the veil served to concealed the women’s identites; however in several of the pictures, the women were veiled only in what is commonly know as a higab- which leaves their faces totally uncovered and thus open to identification. Of the eight videos that I encountered, two were clearly professionally produced, and six appeared to have come from amateur sources. The amateur videos were all very low quality, between thirty seconds and two minutes, and appeared to have been taken with cell phones with little to no audio. Four of the videos showed vaginal sex, two oral

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This type of non-nude picture was what I most commonly found on cell phones. Although not explicit by some western standards, I included it in my sample because my informants considered it pornography.

7 sex, and one showed both. Two of the videos ended with the men ejaculating on the women’s niqaab. None of the videos revealed the men’s faces, but rather exposed the men from the waist down. In one of the videos, the woman wore a higab rather than a niqaab. Other than this, the identities of the women were obscured by the niqaab. The professional videos were between eighteen and twenty minutes in length. However, their content and style varied considerably from both each other and the amateur videos. The first video was unremarkable expect for the fact that the woman was wearing the niqaab. In it, the woman preformed oral sex and the pair had vaginal intercourse in various positions. There was very little verbal communication between them; the women never talked, and the man occasionally gave orders. The identity of the man could clearly be seen, but the woman’s face was obscured at all times. It ended with the man ejaculating on the women’s niqaab. The second video more closely resembled a western-style pornographic film, with dialogue and a very clear storyline. The film starts off by showing an upper class Coptic (Christian) women having sex with her husband, who is a high-level figure within the church. Bored by her life, she embarks on an affair with two lower class Muslim men. While having sex with them, they ejaculate on her large cross necklace. In order to continue having the affair, she converts to Islam and marries one of the men. The next scene shows her having sex with her new husband; however she is now veiled. She also has a cross tattooed between her breasts; the man ejaculates on both. Her first husband then storms into the house and takes her back. The film ends with her giving oral sex to her first husband, who is wearing the full robes of his office.

8 It is debateable whether or not this final film can be counted as munaqqabah pornography as it varies so much from everything else. Not only does it appear to be older, but the way in which it interacts with the cultural and religious taboos and symbology is far more sophisticated than anything else I saw. Certainly, it speaks to the presence of an actual pornographic industry having existed in Egypt at some point. The film also serves to strongly highlight the lack of interaction between the men and women in all of my other sources. Conclusion The incorporation of the niqaab into Arab-produced amateur and professional pornographic material calls into question many issues concerning agency, sexual mores, and symbolic violence in the Middle East. If we look at veiling from a purely functionalist perspective, covering gives women a measure of protection and freedom. Contrasting this, one can also see the veil as robbing the women of all agency and identity as an individual by turning her into nothing but a blank slate for sexual desire. When discussing a woman’s power and role however, distinctions need to be made when examining her agency concerning the production of material versus the distribution the item. A woman (or a man for that matter) may very well exercise agency and power when taking part in the production of pornography, but the open distribution of the material often does not allow her to give consent or permission for it to be disseminated. Considering how much of my sample material is amateur in nature, and the ad-hoc way in which it is largely disseminated, significant concerns then must be raised as to intent and agency of the parties involved.

9 We must also look at the veil in a regional context. It is not a neutral entity; it is loaded with religious and political symbolism. By transforming the veil into a sexualized object-- specifically by ejaculating on it—the argument can be made that the male participant is defiling or disrespecting the religious, cultural, or political factors that have created it, as well as the woman underneath. Although I am less inclined to agree with this view, one can also make the argument that a woman could be using the veil for exactly the same reasons. If we continue to analyze munaqqabah pornography within a regional framework, troubling issues appear. The use of the veil within western pornography clearly stems from an orientalist stereotype of the hyper-sexualized and forbidden Muslim women; given what I encountered, I would strongly question how much of this stereotype has also been internalized within Middle Eastern or Arab minds as well. Moreover, the cultural and religious gender restrictions have severely limited the amount of contact between the sexes. And whilst the argument can be made that munaqqabah pornography is not inherently dangerous by itself, it is often situated in the midst of highly misogynistic and violent western pornography. Thus, it is plausible that for some Arab youth, pornography is one of their main sources of sexual socialization. Combined with the social and economic marginalization emblematic of Middle Eastern youth, a problematic situation is evident - youth have very few options, outlets, or healthy resources for gaining positive sexual knowledge. It remains to be seen how this could effect gender relations in the future but, the situation does not appear to promising. It is a safe assumption that a combination of factors have resulted in the use of the niqaab in pornography. Despite many Middle Eastern governments banning pornographic

10 websites and strong cultural and religious taboos against the viewing and creation of pornography, the levels of consumption and production appear to be on the rise, not the decline. However, before any concrete conclusions regarding pornography in the Middle East or its possible effects can be made, considerably more research is needed into this area.

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