Special to the Star
Wedad Lootah is fighting for women’s sexual rights from behind the full niqab.
A marriage counsellor in the family guidance department of Dubai Courts, Lootah sees couples who are considering divorce or want to revive their relationship. She is also the author of the shocking, for the United Arab Emirates, Top Secret: Sexual Guidance for Married Couples, a book published in January.
And much of the advice she dispenses involves teaching husbands that their wives deserve sexual pleasure too.
The idea of anyone, let alone a female, practising sex therapy may seem at odds with the ethos of the U.A.E. – a country in which hand-holding and other displays of public affection can result in prison terms, where premarital sex among Western expats is a deportable offence.
But Lootah is able to get away with talking about this taboo subject because she bases her advice firmly on the teachings of the Qur’an, which is decidedly more forthcoming about sex than the Bible.
And she insists her motivation has much less to do with sexual liberation than with helping married couples avoid divorce.
“My subject is not sex; people always misunderstand that,” says the married, 45-year-old mother of three, a marital counsellor for nine years. “I’m trying to guide people about how to satisfy each other and save society from illegal relations – girlfriends, boyfriends.
“We’re talking about Islam. We’re not talking about sex.”
Still, the reality is that she and her clients are talking about sex. During a recent, two-hour interview – in English and with an Arabic translator – in her tiny office, she said the most important piece of advice she can give is, “Don’t forget that there are 22 positions to have sex in. Use them all.”
Although the Qur’an states explicitly that both husbands and wives deserve sexual gratification in marriage, sex remains an intensely private subject.
Sex education in Emirates high schools consists of little more than a heads-up for girls about menstruation and a reminder that in Islam, sex may only take place in marriage.
And because many couples in the Emirates are loath to discuss sex with their partners, says Lootah, marriages suffer. Meanwhile, infidelity is forbidden in Islam, and divorce is frowned upon.
Sharia law urges couples considering divorce to make every effort to save their marriage. And Lootah, born and raised in Dubai and studied Islamic jurisprudence in college, sees herself as complying with that guideline by getting men and women to talk about their sex lives.
The truth is that if the Qur’an didn’t factor so largely into her work, she probably would not have been personally appointed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum as the first and only woman family counsellor at the court and in Dubai, nor does it seem likely that Top Secret would have been published.
After all, her book deals with subjects ranging from female orgasm to homosexuality and anal sex.
Lootah condemns the latter two, as they are forbidden in the Qur’an. Indeed, she sees herself as neither provocative nor revolutionary, a self-image bolstered by her wearing of the full niqab, which exposes only her eyes and hands.
THE DIVORCE RATE in the U.A.E. is about 30 per cent. And the process leading up to traditional Muslim marriage makes it particularly vulnerable to breakdown.
Many unions are decided upon by the parents of the prospective bride and groom, who often don’t even meet before the wedding.
Once the families agree on the union, it is confirmed legally in a written agreement.
“Then the marriage is legal, but it is without sex,” she says. “That’s not until the wedding.
“The Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, said before you marry, you need to see each other, you need to understand if you like each other.
“I advise people to visit each other before the wedding, spend time together, get to know each other.”
Lootah says that it’s mainly women who go to see her. “And they’re here because the men don’t always understand that they have responsibility in the marriage beyond working; they have a responsibility to make sure the wife gets pleasure.
“If he has two or more wives, it has to be equal among them all.”
The problem, she continues, is that in a culture where a woman’s modesty is among her most prized traits, more conservative women are reluctant to bring up a subject as racy as sex with their husbands, or even with friends.
The ebullient Lootah says her greatest asset at work is her ability to put those on the other side of her desk at ease. She approaches her subject with empathy, a sense of humour and an unfazed candour.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, Lootah’s openness about a topic generally considered taboo within Islamic culture has stirred up controversy.
She first encountered threats and opposition in 2004, after an interview on the Al Arabiya TV network.
Death threats and accusations of blasphemy followed the release of her book. The anger came from men in the Gulf, who said her openness about sex was un-Islamic.
Her view is that they feel threatened that a woman in niqab would empower other women to demand better sex from their husbands.
The idea for her book arose after she’d met women whose stories about marital sex shocked her.
“One couple lived together for 35 years, they had children, and in discussions I found that the woman had had no sexual pleasure in all that time,” she recalls. “Another woman told me that during the 20 years of her marriage, her husband only ever had anal sex with her except for the times they wanted to have children.”
Another woman said her husband had asked for oral sex, and she wasn’t sure if that was allowed by the Qur’an. (The Qur’an, explains Lootah, has no problem with it.)
Her book is the only one of its kind to have been published in the U.A.E..
The number of people she sees – and not all are Muslims or Emiratis – has increased over her time as a counsellor, she points out. Now she has five or six appointments a day.
“From 2001 to 2004 it was almost always on the phone; couples were ashamed to talk, or they would talk but they wouldn’t reveal everything. Since 2004, when I went on Al Arabiya and started giving lectures, and then the book, now people know there is someone who will listen. Even the most religious couples tell me everything now.”
THERE MAY BE increased openness to talking about sex in other Arab countries too. Heba Kotb, 49, is an Egyptian sex therapist whose decidedly frank sex show is broadcast weekly across the Arab world. Like Lootah, Kotb bases her advice on the Qur’an. And like Lootah, her work has stirred up some vociferous opposition.
One point of pride for Lootah is the fact that among the six family therapists working at the Dubai Court, she is the one whose appointment book fills up quickest. She has the highest success rate, she contends.
And some of her best moments are when the people she has counselled come back to thank her, crediting Lootah for saving a marriage.
Lootah herself has been married 21 years. Her bond with her husband is strong, she says, and he is “very supportive, very proud” of her.
Other than a lack of communication and variety, Lootah says a not making an effort to stay desirable can hurt a marriage.
“My advice for married women is to buy lots of dresses. Look beautiful. Be clean. Use the perfume.
“I give the same advice to men. Be like what you want your wife to be like. Brush your teeth.”
– The National, Dubai