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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

1
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.
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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.
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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 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 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;

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 “‫”جنس‬. When using the term “‫”جنس‬, Egypt 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 ‫”جنس‬. http://www.google.com/trends?q=%D8%AC%D9%86%D8%B3 (accessed
March 11, 2008).
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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”.
http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2001/04/43243?currentPage=all (accessed March 11, 2008).
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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-addiction-
among-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-muslim-
countries/ (accessed March 11, 2008).
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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 damning-
until 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
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See Google Trends.
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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

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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).
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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.
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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 Al-
Karma Edutainment, 2008; 46.
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The equals out to around 3.50 to 11 dollars per DVD.
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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.
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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.
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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.


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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


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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.