By ROBERT F. WORTH Published: June 5, 2009
DUBAI, WEDAD LOOTAH does not look like a sexual activist. A Muslim and a native Emirati, she wears a full-length black niqab — with only her brown eyes showing through narrow slits — and sprinkles her conversation with quotes from the Koran.
Yet she is also the author of what for the Middle East is an amazingly frank new book of erotic advice in which she celebrates the female orgasm, confronts taboo topics like homosexuality and urges Arabs to transcend the backward traditions that limit their sexual happiness.
The book, “Top Secret: Sexual Guidance for Married Couples,” is packed with vivid anecdotes from Ms. Lootah’s eight years as a marital counselor in Dubai’s main courthouse. It became an instant scandal after it was published in Arabic in the Emirates in January, drawing praise from some liberals and death threats from conservatives, who say she is guilty of blasphemy or worse.
Lootah, a strong-willed and talkative 45-year-old, is one of a small but growing number of Arabs pushing for more openness and education about sex. Unlike earlier generations of women who often couched their criticism in a Western language of female emancipation, Lootah and her peers are hard to dismiss as outsiders because they tend to be religious Muslims who root their message in the Koran.
Lootah, for instance, studied Islamic jurisprudence in college, not Western psychology, and her book is studded with religious references. She submitted the text to the Mufti of Dubai before publishing it, and he gave his approval (though he warned her that Arab audiences might not be ready for such a book, especially by a woman). “People have said I was crazy, that I was straying from Islam, that I should be killed,” Lootah said. “Even my family ask why I must talk about this. I say: ‘These problems happen every day and should not be ignored. This is the reality we are living.’ ”
She is not a liberal by Western standards. One of the themes of her book is the danger of anal sex and homosexuality generally, not because of AIDS but because they are banned by the Koran. But her openness about the issue was itself a shock to many here.
In Saudi Arabia and other countries where the genders are rigorously separated, many men have their first sexual experiences with other men, which affects their attitudes toward sex in marriage, Lootah said.
“Many men who had anal sex with men before marriage want the same thing with their wives, because they don’t know anything else,” Lootah said. “This is one reason we need sex education in our schools.”
She is also emphatic about the importance of female sexual pleasure, and the inequity of many Arab marriages in that respect. One of the cases that impelled her to write the book, she said, was a 52-year-old client who had grandchildren but had never known sexual pleasure with her husband. “Finally, she discovered orgasm!” Lootah said. “Imagine, all that time she did not know.”
Another important theme of the book is infidelity. The prevalence of foreign women in Dubai and the ease of e-mail and text-message communication has made cheating easier (and easier to detect), Ms. Lootah said, helping push the divorce rate to 30 percent.
The Gulf’s oil-fueled modernization in recent decades has also shattered some old Arab social structures. At the same time, the rise of political Islam has undermined traditional authorities, leaving many Arabs confused about moral issues. “Before, people lived in one place and the community was like one big family,” Lootah said. “Now, people have spread to different areas, everything’s mixed up and traditions have changed.”
One result is the Family Guidance section in the Dubai Courthouse, which opened in 2001 with Lootah as its first counselor (there are now six others, all men). Kuwait ’s government has had a similar social-services wing since the 1990s, and other Persian Gulf countries are following suit. Private psychologists and marriage counselors also exist throughout the Arab world, though they are still rare.
“We’re making a lot of progress,” said Heba Kotb, who runs an Islam-oriented sex therapy clinic in Cairo , and ran a satellite television talk show on sexual and marital issues from 2006 until 2008. “Ten years ago we were unable to even mention the subject, and now people are getting used to hearing it.”
There are still formidable obstacles. In a region where “honor killings” of women who have sex outside marriage remain fairly common, sex education is widely viewed as a portal to sin. Genital cutting of women still takes place in Egypt , though it is now illegal. Arab writers and artists have begun to tackle these subjects.
Thirty years ago the Egyptian director Saleh Abu Seif wrote a screenplay called “ Sex School ,” but the censorship bureau had yet to approve it when he died in 1996. His son was finally allowed to direct a modified version of the film, about a sexually dissatisfied couple who go to see a therapist, and it was released in 2002 under the title “The Ostrich and the Peacock.”
Ms. Lootah never expected to become part of this debate. One of nine children born to an illiterate water-seller in Dubai , she married early and taught elementary school for years. Later, she took a job working for an Islamic endowment, where her efforts to introduce education and family-reunion days in prison earned her two government-service awards. W hen Dubai introduced the Family Guidance section of its courthouse, Dubai ’s ruler, Sheik Muhammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, asked her to be the first counselor.
The family guidance section was established in part to comply with Islamic precepts calling for couples who want a divorce to try to work out their problems first. In practice, it has become an all-purpose therapy destination for people with marital problems.
Lootah sees about seven cases a day, individuals and couples. Most of them are native Emiratis, but in the multicultural world of Dubai — where about 90 percent of the population is foreign — she has also counseled some Europeans and Asians. As in the criminal courts next door, a translator sits in on the session, and sometimes even offers advice to bridge cultural gaps.
“Some people are amazed I can work with people with only my eyes showing,” Ms. Lootah said, with a ripple of laughter. “Maybe it’s because of the way I move my hands! But I can tell you that people come here, and they speak very frankly with me.”
She reels off stories from her practice in rapid fire: the Emirati military officer whose wife had an affair because he was away from home too much; the woman who thought fellatio was against Islam (not true at all, Ms. Lootah notes); the wife who discovered her husband dressing up as a woman and going out to gay bars. She seems bent on showing that there is a whole world of sexual confusion that would benefit from open discussion.
Publishing the book, she notes, was a difficult choice. Her father supported her, but other family members sometimes wondered why she had to be so public about it all. After it was published a man called her office phone and threatened to kill her. Other threats appeared on the Internet. She brushes them off, saying she has declined an offer of protection from the government. Besides, she adds, educating the public is worth the risk.
“A few days ago a woman came in and asked me if it is O.K. to kiss the man all over his body,” she said. “I told her, ‘Read my book!’ ”