In her latest book, Sex and Lies, translated by Sophie Lewis, Leïla Slimani collects the sexual stories of Moroccan women from all walks of life to create a provoking, yet uplifting narrative.
This short but powerful book explores the deep hypocrisy of sexual life in Morocco, a life governed by the unofficial rule, ‘Do what you wish, but never tell about it.’ The consequence, just as when a parent tells a child that sweets are forbidden, is a society obsessed by sex. According to one statistic, Moroccans are the fifth biggest consumers of porn in the world, and yet society still outwardly functions according to very strict and traditional values. And, as is so often the case, it is women who bear the brunt of navigating that tricky terrain in the middle. In a series of revealing and often heart-breaking (and infuriating) interviews, Leïla Slimani collects the sexual stories of women from all walks of life, interlacing their words with her own analysis. The result is a hard-hitting book that also manages to offer hope: an enlightening, provoking, and yet also uplifting narrative, superbly translated by Sophie Lewis.
Sex and Lies was sparked by the success of Slimani’s 2014 novel, Dans le jardin de l’ogre, published in English last year as Adèle. This story, of a woman with a sex addiction who engages in countless extra-marital affairs without finding any pleasure in them, made many reviewers profoundly uncomfortable. Some French journalists even expressed surprise that a Moroccan-born woman could write such a novel – shouldn’t it have been more prudish, more reserved, less sexy and far less provocative? Leaving aside all the issues of gendered discrimination, orientalism and racism explicit in such a viewpoint, Dans le jardin de l’ogre turned out to be a startlingly accurate metaphor for the collective experience of young Moroccan women. Many of them, silenced both in public and at home, were keen to tell their stories. Some requested that their name be changed, afraid of repercussions, while others were openly defiant. All were struggling to find answers to the question of how to live freely, as a woman, in a society dominated by religious and patriarchal authority.
Among those whose stories are represented are a sex worker, a young gay woman, doctors, a lawyer, a film-maker, a journalist, and a female religious scholar. Common to all of their narratives is the tension of navigating a system that, according to one woman, ‘turns us all into outlaws’. In Morocco, any form of sex outside of marriage is illegal. Premarital sex between partners of the opposite sex carries a penalty of up to a year in prison. For adultery, this rises to two years; for homosexual acts to three (this penal code is identical to the French one, only repealed in France in 1982, and so serves as a devastating reminder of the colonial impact). Abortion is legal only in cases of rape, incest, and severe embryonic deformity, and there is no sex education. The argument is that since sex should only be occurring within marriage, there is no need for it.
Of course, the laws are in many cases unenforceable. Almost all of the women Slimani interviews have stories to tell of their own experiences, or those of friends or sisters: of how forests, car parks, deserted beaches and public toilets all become the setting for romantic (or otherwise) liaisons, because they can’t use their own homes and hotels ask to see proof of marriage when a couple asks for one room; of how the police can be bribed to look the other way, and so it is the sex workers who get paid in vegetables who suffer the most; of women who led secret sex lives who now want children and stability, and so are considering hymen replacement in order for them to be eligible to marry.
Neither are the laws equal, at least not in practice. In a culture that treats men as ‘demigods’, and where women’s physical and intellectual freedom is seen as a threat and a ‘violation’ against the laws of Islam, men’s sexual experimentation is viewed as a natural, if slightly unfortunate, thing that simply happens. Not only does this pave the way for the victim to become the criminal, as is the case in many rape cases, but it divides women into two ‘classes’: those a man will sleep with, and those he will marry. In this sense, Sex and Lies paints a stark and harrowing picture. How can such an entrenched cultural, political, and religious system ever be challenged?
The uplifting part of Sex and Lies comes when you realise that a lot of these women are challenging it already. The act of speaking out and telling their story is a rebellion of sorts, and many are actively engaged to a greater or lesser extent in promoting change. Many live alone: an experience that would have been largely unthinkable for their own mothers. Some have the support of their families, including fathers and brothers, in pursuing academic studies, travel, careers. And there is a growing awareness, at least among those interviewed, of the role language has to play in shaping attitudes. Sexual language on the streets is often clothed in violence. Even amongst women, girls who have lost their virginity are referred to as ‘broken’, ‘spoiled’, or ‘ruined’ by men. Children born out of wedlock are now permitted to be registered, but their name must carry the prefix ‘abd’, meaning ‘servant’, ‘slave’, or ‘insubordinate’. Unsurprisingly, Slimani estimates that 24 babies are abandoned and over 600 illegal abortions are carried out each day.
According to Lebanese poet and journalist Joumana Haddad, in a 2015 article quoted by Slimani, changing the language is imperative. “Instead of telling your daughter over and over that she’s a target, stop telling your son that he’s a hunter…Instead of forcing your daughter to cover up, try explaining to your son that a woman is more than just her body”. Even more fundamentally, the justification of Islam in the subordination of women is now also being challenged. Asma Lamrabet, a religious scholar whose words are included in Sex and Lies, spends her days in close reading of the Qu’ran. In it, she says, she can find very little reference to gender and even less to sex: it is addressed primarily to ‘insan’, the human being which has no gender, and so the idea of the male as ‘the norm’ and the female as ‘inferior’ simply does not exist.
Perhaps as a result of these glimmers of hope, Slimani is firm in rejecting anticipatory accusations that things are not that bad, that she is peddling “orientalist clichés” and fuelling Islamophobia. She is, she says, simply passionate about her argument, which calls for nuanced and honest conversation, and Morocco to find its own way rather than adopting wholesale the values of the West. She is also passionate about the voices of the women she writes about. It is their voices, above all, that carry this book, and for them that she wrote it. Until women have full control over their bodies, until they are no longer ‘the guarantor of family honour, and worse still, of the nation’s identity’ there is neither true freedom nor true equality. Which is, after all, what we are all fighting for.
Leïla Slimani’s Sex and Lies is translated by Sophie Lewis and published by Faber. To order the book, click here. Click the links to follow Leïla Slimani on Instagram and Joumana Haddad on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Sophie Lewis on Twitter @sophietimes
This piece was completed for Life in Languages, a new series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes