CAIRO, Egypt (AP) — Heba Kotb is a conservative Muslim, wears an Islamic head scarf, and goes on television once a week to talk — frankly and in great detail — about sex.
On her show, “Big Talk,” Kotb answers questions from Muslims all over the Middle East about the most intimate bedroom issues with an openness that is shocking and revolutionary in a society where discussing the subject is taboo.
“How do I talk about these issues? Very seriously,” the Egyptian sexologist says. “I put on a mask-like face and make sure I speak in the right tone of voice.”
She also does it by talking about sex in an Islamic light, arguing that the faith is in favor of pleasure for both men and women, with one important caveat — that it be only in the context of marriage.
“I’m very proud of my religion,” Kotb told The Associated Press in an interview at Cairo University, where she teaches forensic medicine. “My studies revealed to me more and more how Islam was ahead in all sexual matters … I discovered that Islam understood sex long before the rest of the world.”
For example, Islam “stresses the importance of foreplay,” Kotb said, and she often stresses to listeners that women should also enjoy sex.
Kotb’s frankness is a hit in a region where sex education is minimal, male-female contact is often discouraged and talk on the subject is usually in hushed tones, allowing myths to circulate freely.
She lectured in Saudi Arabia and Yemen recently, where she said many men in the audience where shocked, while women — some with veiled faces — bombarded her with questions.
Kotb, 39 and married with three daughters, studied sexology with Maimonides University, a private school in Florida, and combined it with her own knowledge of her religion to produce a dissertation titled “Sexuality in Islam.” She opened a sexology clinic in Cairo in 2002, wrote sex advice columns in newspapers, appeared on talk shows and answered questions on an Arabic Web site.
She started “Big Talk” on the independent Egyptian satellite channel El-Mehwar more than two months ago.
Much of her advice is straight biology — laying out facts rarely aired elsewhere. Nothing is too sensitive. She discusses sexual positions, female orgasm, oral sex (allowed, “since there is no religious text banning it”), even masturbation (frowned upon but at least preferable to unmarried or adulterous sex, which is “haram,” meaning forbidden by religion).
She takes a strict Islamic line on homosexuality — she calls it a disease.
Along with doctors, she sometimes brings Islamic clerics onto her show, and many callers ask about the religion’s rulings on sexual issues.
Because Islam trumps all else on her show, some complain that it’s part of a general inclination in the Middle East to view everything through the prism of religion.
“After Islamic banks, Islamic fashion, Islamic TV channels, Islamic hairdressers, Islamic swimsuits, Islamic writers … now Islamic sex? This is too much,” protested feminist writer Mona Helmi in a column in the Egyptian pro-government weekly Rose el-Youssef.
“Sex is an emotional and human condition, not a religious or identity issue,” she said.
Some complain that youngsters are watching the show.
“So now girls and boys have heard all about Heba’s talk about sex … that will let them know more than they should and will get them excited,” Somia, a housewife, told AP as she watched “Big Talk,” too embarrassed to give her full name.
Kotb says frankness is essential and believes 80 percent of divorces in the Arab world are due to sexual problems brought on by ignorance and societal pressure, such as the idea that man must marry a virgin.
“Many women know nothing about their bodies, not to mention sex, and they were raised to believe sex is for men and a dirty thing,” she says.
She gives sex education courses for unmarried youths with the consent of their parents, but in her consulting practice takes only married couples. She says she is booked up for two months with couples from across the Arab world.
“It’s a beautiful thing what she is doing,” said Abier El-Barbary, a psychotherapist and faculty member of American University in Cairo. “It’s a long overdue topic tastefully done,” she said.
Dec. 3, 2006
Nadia Abou El-Magd