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Sexuality and Religion: A Source of Conflict in Egyptian Life
Egypt is one of the oldest cultures on earth. Part of that culture is the religion of Islam. The practices of Egypt's modern society, including sexuality, are deeply rooted in both its religious and secular history. Yet, like any modern society, the Egyptian people are exposed to the influences of the rest of the world. It is a world with much different values and practices than those of the Prophet Mohammed and previous generations. Regarding sexuality, the combination of duty to tradition and desire for liberation represents a serious struggle in daily Egyptian life.
The Quran and Islamic law heavily influence civil law and social practices in Egypt. This influence started in the middle of the seventh century A.D., when the Arabs conquered Egypt. At the time, Egypt was ruled by the Byzantine Empire and was suffering religious persecution under them. The Egyptians welcomed the Arab invaders and, over the next several centuries, gradually converted to Islam. This eventually led to the current religious makeup in Egypt today of about 90% Muslim and 10% other, mostly Coptic Christians (US Central Intelligence Agency).
The Islamic law or sharia practiced today is not just a restatement of the Quran. Rather, it is a mix of those verses, observations of the behaviors of Mohammed (sunnah) and interpretations of Mohammed's teachings developed over the centuries by Islamic legal scholars. But, how many of these laws does the average Egyptian citizen know? As in most societies with numerous and complicated laws, the average person's legal knowledge comes mostly from verbal instruction and hearsay. This leaves compliance with the law open to misunderstandings and manipulation. For the individual, this causes uncertainty and anxiety.
In compliance with Islamic beliefs, sexual relations in Egyptian society are only allowed between a legally married couple. A high value is placed on virginity at the time of marriage. However, lifelong celibacy is discouraged. Extraordinary measures, by Western standards, are taken to uphold the society's moral standards. These measures fall generally into the categories of avoiding unsupervised contact between genders and avoiding arousal of sexual urges. Since Egypt is a male dominated society, the responsibility for avoiding premarital relations rests predominately with the female.
Egyptian society assigns stereotypical roles to men and women. The men are the breadwinners and protectors, while women are expected to maintain the household and raise the children. Since the men need to move about freely to fulfill their role, women are required to curtail their travels to avoid arousing the men. Ideally, when leaving the house, a responsible male from her family, typically a brother or her father, should accompany an unmarried woman. However, in modern Egypt many young women attend college or have jobs where constant family supervision is impractical. Also, when outside the house, a woman is expected to wear modest clothing and cover all exposed skin except face and hands. Again, the purpose of this is to avoid the sexual arousal of the males who may see her.
Egyptian women's efforts to avoid attracting male attention are not working well. Sexual harassment is prevalent in Egypt. In an interview with the Washington Post, one Egyptian woman commented, “The more women veil the less men learn to behave as decent and civilized members of society and the more women are harassed, the more they veil thinking it will 'protect' them (Knickmeyer)." In a travel advisory, the US Department of State says that a 2008 survey of Egyptian men determined that 78% had sexually harassed women. Harassment experiences create anxiety and internal conflict in Egyptian women. They are making a sincere effort to avoid the problem by covering up. Yet, they are unsuccessful and have been raised to believe that such problems are their fault.
The practice of avoiding encounters between genders for unmarried people creates a huge problem. Courtship as known in Western culture, including hand holding, hugging and kissing, is prohibited. Thus, it is difficult for a couple to fall in love and get to know each other well enough to consider marriage. The historical answer has been for the family to assist their children in finding suitable mates. Families identify perspective mates for their children and arrange meetings in the presence of the woman's family. However, this environment limits the extent to which the couple can get to know each other and results in less certainty in compatibility than would be expected in societies that permit unsupervised courtship. It also contributes to internal conflict in the individuals involved. That is, personal uncertainties about the potential mate conflict with family expectations for young people to marry by a certain age.
In recent years, the high cost of getting married and economic conditions in modern Egypt have made it difficult for Egyptian men to afford marriage. In Egypt, the groom and his father pay for the wedding and must give a dowry or mahr to the bride. For the typical wedding, this cost amounts to several years wages of both the groom and his father (Singerman, 21-22). This is forcing young Egyptians to put off marriage until they can save the required money. For people living by the Islamic rules and avoiding premarital sexual relations, this waiting increases sexual frustration and can lead to depression.
The impact of high marriage costs on a young couple's finances and a weak courtship procedure contribute to a high failure rate for Egyptian marriages. Egyptian government statistics show that 34.5% of marriages fail in their first year (Al Khamissi). For comparison, in the US approximately 70% of couples married between 1990 and 1994 were still married ten years later (US Census Bureau).
An alternative to the high cost traditional marriage is an urfi (secret) marriage. In this form of marriage, the couple draws up a marriage contract and verbally declares that they are married. Typically the contract is not registered with the government and the couple's families are not informed. While this type of marriage is inexpensive and allows them to have sexual relations, it can create other problems for the couple. If the sexual relations result in a pregnancy, it becomes difficult to keep the marriage secret. The couple must either disclose their marriage or get an illegal abortion. Also, the couple must still deal with the stress and anxiety associated with keeping the marriage secret. They must find places to meet and justify the time spent apart from their families.
People who aren't able to get married may look for alternative outlets for their sexual needs. Typical possibilities include Internet pornography, masturbation and prostitution. None of these are looked upon favorably in Egyptian society. Thus, the person is faced with another conflict; endure the sexual frustration or the guilt and risk associated with these other sexual outlets.
According to Google Trends, Egyptians are among the world leaders in seaching for the word “sex” on the Internet. However, viewing pornography violates Islamic law set forth in the Quran.
“Lo! Allah enjoineth justice and kindness, and giving to kinsfolk, and forbiddeth lewdness and abomination and wickedness. He exhorteth you in order that ye may take heed (Pickthall: Quran 16:90).”
Therefore, by choosing this behavior the person is choosing one banned act over another (sex outside of marriage).
Past generations of Egyptians accepted the sexual restrictions imposed by law and tradition because they were raised in that environment, learned that concept of self and had little opportunity for comparison to practices in other cultures. However, improved communications through the Internet and other media have raised questions in the minds of Egyptian youth about these customs. They see premarital sex and publicly expressed sexuality in Western media and desire those freedoms and pleasures for themselves.
For now, the conflict between individual sexual desires and society's restrictions on sexual activity occurs mostly within the individuals in Egyptian society. However, as Western culture and values influence more and more young Egyptians, it is likely that a more visible struggle for increased sexual latitude will develop between them and the fundamentalists, who demand to retain the old customs.