Egyptian film breaks taboos by discussing sex
A 1994 population conference in Cairo attracted the wrath of Islamic groups, who said the sections on family planning and sex education in its draft resolution were a licence for promiscuity which violated Islamic morals. But in a world where youths are increasingly exposed to sex on the Internet and satellite television, experts argue that there is an urgent need to break the tradition of silence
By Heba Kandil
Egypt’s heavy-handed censors might have spared Hassan a decade of misery if only they had given their approval some 30 years ago to “The Ostrich and the Peacock”, a frank Egyptian film about sexual misconceptions.
Egyptian actress Lebleba, who plays a key role in the film, said 18-year-old Hassan had lamented to her: “If this movie had been made a long time ago, my father wouldn’t have divorced my mother and I wouldn’t have suffered as I did.”
But three decades earlier, the film — then bluntly titled “Sex School” — was snubbed by local censors who deemed the direct dialogue on sexual problems between married couples too brazen for Egyptt’s conservative society. Doctors and sociologists say many broken marriages, like that of Hassan’s parents, might have been saved if issues such as sex and marital relations were addressed more openly in Egypt.
“The film does not provoke sexual desires. The issue with the censors was that the film confronted the problem (of sexual misconceptions) in a straightforward way,” Lenin el-Ramly, the film’s scriptwriter, told Reuters.
Today, nudity and explicit scenes in Hollywood films are still cut by the censors, but Egyptian movies are allowed to show increasingly steamy liaisons with scantily clad starlets. Bold dialogue on sex no longer seems to irk the censors’ office in Egypt, the centre of film making in the Arab world.
After slight alterations and a name change, the film — which played to packed cinemas across the Arab worldd’s most populous country — has broken social taboos through the story of Hamdy and Samira, a sexually frustrated married couple.
Hamdy’s first sexual encounter is with a prostitute while cheap booklets and teenage friends are his source of knowledge about sex, leaving him clueless about female desires and how to please Samira.
The movie recounts Samira’s traumatic experience of female “circumcision”, widely practised in Egypt and also known as female genital mutilation because of the severe forms it takes. Samira has been molested by her tutor and suffers from a lack of sexual knowledge that leaves her too frightened and timid to talk about her feelings.
Struck a chord with masses: Lebleba, who plays the role of a psychiatrist called Doctor Fatma said the movie has struck a chord with the masses. “I have women of all ages coming up to me in the streets to hug, kiss and thank me for the film that was frank yet inoffensive,” she said.
To guide the couple and audience through delicate issues such as mutual sexual satisfaction and circumcision, Doctor Fatma uses scientific terms and explains Islam’s thinking on the subject.
She mentions how a woman’s body responds to emotions and gently indicates that Islam does not sanction circumcision. A top Egyptian cleric has said female circumcision is un-Islamic although some clerics support the practice. But some critics said they found the script overburdened with scientific terminology and too didactic, at the expense of drama.
“It’s as if we were watching a social awareness television programme at the cinema,” said film critic Tarek el-Shennawy.
Ramly argues that the movie still manages to entertain while delivering a serious message. “I don’t think it was boring. This movie intended to rectify misunderstandings prevalent in eastern societies and which pose great problems,” Ramly said.
Ignorance and resistance: Egyptian doctors and health experts say discussion of issues such as sexual misunderstanding in marriage are often bottled up in Egyptian society.
“There are many false understandings on marital relations, but society is embarrassed to speak about it, as a result there is a large amount of ignorance on this topic,” said Magda Fahmy, professor of psychiatry at Suez Canal University.
“Many men have misconstrued notions of sexual power and manhood picked up from tabloid books and false information circulating between boys, while women are often too embarrassed to tell their husbands of their sexual needs,” she added.
Health expert Barbara Ibrahim said recent health surveys showed both a demand for information about sex from youths but also resistance by adult society to discuss the issue.
“The resistance came from the educated urban middle class (which has) assumptions about what is appropriate,” she said. Poorer classes tended to be more open. “Our surveys also indicate that kids want to learn about marriage and sexuality from their parents, and parents are not talking to their kids,” she added.
Medical professionals and activists are all too familiar with Egypt’s history of resistance to sex education, which some experts say is not dealt with in enough detail in schools.
A 1994 population conference in Cairo attracted the wrath of Islamic groups, who said the sections on family planning and sex education in its draft resolution were a licence for promiscuity which violated Islamic morals.
But in a world where youths are increasingly exposed to sex on the Internet and satellite television, experts argue that there is an urgent need to break the tradition of silence.
“If education on marital relations is delivered in a religious and scientific fashion then it shouldn’t embarrass anyone. The world is developing quickly. With easy access to information the risk of misunderstanding is higher,” Fahmy said.
“What’s needed now is to plan and implement such (sex) education in our school curriculum in a very careful and researched way,” she added. —Reuters