Kamel Daoud and the Sexual Misery of the Arab World: Y’all Haters Corny with that Orientalist Mess


“People in the West are discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands.” (Daoud, The Sexual Misery of the Arab World)

In an era of fear and loathing, cultural difference stealthily, yet all too easily, mutates into anathema. Complexity and nuance are replaced with reductive and simplistic slogans.

Highly politicized indictments on the politics of sex, gender and violence in Muslim societies as recently approached by secular Western writers of Muslim backgrounds like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani have become the darling of some within Western intelligentsia and academic circles, particularly those who have a bone to pick against Islam and Muslims. Here, in his recent New York Times op-ed, The Sexual Misery of the Arab World, Kamel Daoud, an Algerian writer and Western-endorsed public intellectual, regurgitates more of the same.


“The reminder has led people in the West to realize that one of the great miseries plaguing much of the so-called Arab world, and the Muslim world more generally, is its sick relationship with women.” 

It goes without saying that any current reading of a World Health Organization or UN Women report on the status of women the world over is cause for alarming concern. Nations, including those in North America, Europe, and the Middle East, are each navigating their way through circuitous fields where gender meets existing social and political norms relating to sex and then loops back to intersect with the complex dynamics of race, class, power, and privilege.

In spite of this, Daoud goes out of his way in his op-ed to reject any notion that the politics of sex is an issue that impacts all modern day societies. He argues that diverse Arab, and perhaps more importantly, Muslim societies are instead uniquely miserable in this regard. While it is undeniable that the treatment of women in Arab and Muslim societies is often dismal, for him, the status of sex in the Western world must be the stuff of cultural utopianism. He pulls the same card trick that Hirsi Ali and Nomani do: his deeply subjective and methodologically faulty inferences are masked as objective and rigorous truths.


“Desire has no outlet, no outcome; the couple is no longer a space of intimacy,”

Daoud’s is a sentiment that has been echoed before—reductively facile; glib to the point of being trolling. Rather than embrace an intersectional approach to sexuality as many Arab and Muslim feminists do, he jumps into a counter-intuitive and self-ingested orientalism that arm-wrestles feminism to its most shallow, and inappropriately humanist notes.

How does one even respond to someone who publicly speaks as an intellectual on gender, sexuality, and sex all while avoiding the awkward complexities contained in the evolution of any and all social movements? What do you say to someone who writes about a regressive form of sex found in the Arab and Muslim worlds—and then willfully ignores feminism’s many waves, Europe’s Dark Ages still manifesting in virginity pledges and the politicization of adolescent sex by the religious right in modern-day America, and the concurrent and far more worrisome war on women, particularly women of color and women living in poverty, throughout the Western world?


“In some of Allah’s lands, the war on women and on couples has the air of an inquisition.”  

Women’s bodies, and in particular, Muslim women’s bodies, have all too often been the world’s battleground: the contested borders on which political ideologies are played out and sold with little actual benefit to the lives of the women being exploited. Here is no exception. Daoud elaborates on a critique that simply ignores another truth: women the world over, in the Western world and in the Arab world, have been subjected to alarming rates of gender-based violence, veiled or unveiled. While the particular mechanisms in which women have been subjugated and the sexual mores that promote these behaviors may differ, these cultural differences have led societies on different pathways to more of the same–the disparate and violent treatment of far too many women and girls.

Institutionalized and elite rejection of cultural difference often lead us to handle difference by either ignoring it, or by looking down on it, or, through the kind of hegemonic cultural demolition that is on display here. In today’s era of increased polarization, we have few patterns for relating across our individual and cultural differences as equals. As a result, these differences get misnamed or misused in the service of other political and ideological ends. Here, Daoud—and similarly, Hirsi Ali and Nomani—are not rooted in a deep concern for Arab or Muslim women. Rather, their narratives stem out of a desire to privilege their individual survival stories by rejecting and upending the very cultures these women are rooted in.


“Revolution doesn’t mean modernity.”

In an increasingly polarized cultural climate, ‘otherized’ people are expected to educate the ‘non-other’ as to their humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Black people are expected to educate the white world. Poor people are expected to educate the rich. Where limited resources, intellectual endeavors, and risk-tolerant strategies might be better utilized to design realistic scenarios for reimagining realities and building the future, talking heads like Daoud and Hirsi Ali remain on a constant and relentless reel to educate others about the Muslim societies they have survived. Energy expended here leads to little more than hemming and hawing (“How beastly!”) at best and further demonization with real political and social implications for entire populations of people at worst.

A legitimate intellectual history of sexuality and the sexual politics of the Muslim world—be it Arab, African, South Asian, or Western—is one that acknowledges the many complicated ways Muslim women’s intellectual production and sexuality at large has been and continues to be exploited, rendered invisible, or devalued. It then centers intellectual production as created by women (and other marginalized individuals) living in these societies and privileges them to be producers and creators. It affords them the right to determine their encounters with societal institutions, including religion, in addition to their interactions with the rest of the world.

If Daoud was truly concerned about the objectionable and real manipulation of sex, gender, and sexuality in modern Muslim societies, he would ask how Muslim women and other disenfranchised groups in these societies engage objectification or even violence. He would inquire as to the diverse and varied intellectual, cultural, and yes, even religious traditions behind Muslim women’s activism today. He would specifically reference the current intellectual productions of Muslim women—Arab, South Asian, African, and Western. (As this website alone can attest, I assure you it is out there, alive and well.) Instead, his ideas—although certainly popular in some Western intellectual circles—are anything but rigorous, unsteeped in cultural complexities as experienced by those most impacted.


“One result is that people fantasize about the trappings of another world: either the West, with its display of immodesty and lust, or the Muslim paradise and its virgins.”

Power, change, and collective healing will be found in people from the global Muslim diaspora being provided the space to tell their own stories: giving context to their histories and voicing their own lived experiences and cultural survival without resorting to Orientalist tropes. These objectionable approaches have needlessly and too often framed how stories that delve into Muslim-influenced sexuality have been told, and who gets to tell them, particularly the stories of poor and middle-class women of color.

Muslim and Arab women deserve to share their own miseries through their cultural remembrances and untarnished social contexts. Collectively, these stories tell the real narrative about the politics of sex not through a subjective Orientalist lens, but one that is rooted in the stories of people, places, and experiences of those societies. Muslim women deserve an audience that understands the complex ways in which sex impacts their lives, not a reductive and simplistic analysis that flattens women’s lives, gendered histories, and choices.

Politicizing Arab and Muslim women’s sexual tragedies and the cultural mores that lead to violence and inequity as props for popular consumption is not advocacy. It’s not even an act of vulnerability. What is an act of vulnerability is an understanding that that patriarchal oppression here and social mores as they relate to sex are inextricably linked to other exploitative practices found in authoritarianism, colonialism, liberalism, religion, or yes, even secularism.

The sexual misery of the Arab and Muslim worlds will not be solved by the op-eds of writers whose individual survival stories depend on a wholesale rejection of the cultures that permeate these societies. Quite frankly, Daoud is not starting a conversation here that even matters to anyone who lives it. If he really cares about the misery of others, he must instead join and amplify the conversation that already exists.

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Samar Kaukab is an altM columnist and Advisory Board member.


Photo Credit: Huffington Post


  • Aftab Ali says:

    This is was so true – not just for a singular anger venting “survivor”, but for almost all such SJWs. If there is something to be solved, there are means to do it that require more courage than nagging on the NYT.

  • Yasmin bint Yahya says:

    I posted this on Facebook but will post it here as well:

    If Mr. Daoud had just stuck to local issues that would have been fine, but what makes his work reek of Orientalism is the fact that he cherry picks a bunch of local issues in order to “prove” that Muslims around the globe are backwards when it comes to women, all the while ignoring the issues women in Western countries are experiencing.

    Mr. Daoud should really read this article: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/10/learning-to-speak-lingerie because it is well researched about Upper Egypt and consumption of racy lingerie and immediately proves, via its ethnographical views, his entire thesis invalid.

  • Carlos the philosopher says:

    I understand and completely support the false reading of orientalism which is constantly mentioned in this article. Nevertheless, this very text is willing to discard misconceptions about sex life in the muslim world as appear in Daoud´s article, and it never speaks about sex. And I mean real sex, penetration, kisses, being naked, rituals of intercourse, pleasure, orgasm. Let me say it a little rudely -and I hope you can reject my idea-, occidentals are accused of misunderstanding the sexual life in the muslim world as sick by saying that occidental sex is also sick. Daoud´s article is not only about the role of muslim women, but also abut sex. This article about sex mentions a hundred things but real sex -the repetition of words I use is just rethorical. It seems that the author is willing not to speak about it while speaking about it. We usually use this indirect approach to things that are considered as taboo. I am sorry, but this attitude gives a point to Daoud´s article even if its information is also misleading.

    • Samar Kaukab says:

      Thanks for your comment. Interesting points and question. In terms of Daoud’s piece, he quite intentionally talks about the misery of sex (see title of his piece) and a spreading of this ‘misery’ to the Western world. I don’t spend a lot of time discussing the particulars of the ‘politics of sex’ in the Arab or Muslim world because my objection to Daoud’s piece is not one that is opposed to open and needed discussion about sex in these diverse cultures. Rather, it is that he isn’t actually focused on that. His is an unwarranted and dangerous comparison and a faulty one at that. As it relates to discussions of sex and sexual dysfuntions, I have no problem engaging in and amplifying the work of those who are actually addressing the needs of those most impacted. In fact, this is work that I have been focusing on and working with others on for quite a few years now.

  • I think this article is ultra-defensive and stubborn. There is a huge problem in the Middle East and the muslim world regarding not just women, but sex and sexuality. If Mr Daoud chose that as his topic, that’s the topic he chose. Why attack him for not talking about western women? If I wrote an article about French wine, I wouldn’t expect to be criticised for not mentioning Australian wine.
    I found this article really annoying and picky. Us Arabs should face up to the fact that we don’t know how to talk about sex and that causes a lot of repression and strange behaviour.

  • Frederick says:

    How can a writer living and working in Algeria, surviving under daily death threats and far more in tune with Arab life in North Africa than any American academic or any Muslim living in the West be accused of “Orientalism”? This is just moronic. Edward Said needs to bow out at some point – the people criticizing Daoud are the real Orientalists. And they are in perfect denial.

  • Frederick says:

    PS. This is quite unintentionally hilarious : “Daoud’s is a sentiment that has been echoed before—reductively facile; glib to the point of being trolling. Rather than embrace an intersectional approach to sexuality as many Arab and Muslim feminists do, he jumps into a counter-intuitive and self-ingested orientalism that arm-wrestles feminism to its most shallow, and inappropriately humanist notes.” Arm-wrestling, trolling, intersectional, inappropriate humanism and self-ingested orientalism? It’s completely meaningless and incoherent. How can you arm-wrestle something to a note?

  • Samar Kaukab says:

    Thank you all for your comments. Some of you may be interested in my further comments on this piece as it relates to my usage of orientalism. You can find my comment here: https://www.facebook.com/samar.ahmad/posts/10107097226907305?pnref=story

  • Dr. Maria says:

    Thank you, Samer, for writing this article. As a researcher in women’s social justice issues, particularly “intimate partner violence”, I find Daoud’s original article to be biased and misinformed- at best- and facetious, clever, and strategically planned as a possible worst case scenario. One in four women in the United States of America, alone, have experienced some form of “intimate partner violence”. 14-17,000 women and children are trafficked for sexual slavery in the USA each year and over 175,000 women and children are trafficked each year in European countries. If Daoud wanted to provide true journalism for this topic, certainly he would have taken the time to do a comparative analysis based on factual information and not heresay. Surely he would have taken the time to include an analysis between cultures and provided valid and reliable data collection from Muslims themselves, instead of anecdotal and stereotypical superficial analysis from lofty self-righteous thrones of ignorance. Does he realize “Muslim sex” includes sub-cultures from almost every continent of the world? This piece, by Daoud, was written to appease the “gods of secularism” and the “gods of fame” and the “Western gods of media” and to inflame and belittle Muslims…. The fact that he, once again, chooses the “Muslim Woman” as the point of exposure, alludes to the deeper societal secular sickness that “must undress a woman” and cannot live with the prospect of a woman not being “public property”. His coercing themes of anti-niqab and anti-hijab and the “uncovering of women” as a sign of societal freedom borders on societal rape of rhetoric. His pressuring of something private to become public in order to provide a “cure” shows his absolute disregard for basic psychology. His focus on an “imminent threat” of “sick Muslim sex” highlights his ignorance of the correlation of sex and the idea of rape. They are, indeed, driven by two completely different psychologies… Furthermore, he completely leaves out the fact that rape is often prompted by wars, poverty, physical and social environment, social norms, and drugs and alcohol. Continued sleazy journalism coming from Daoud, Hirsi Ali, and others is not new. Many have trodden the path to fame by stepping on entire societies and providing “hoax” solutions to problems only Don Quixote could begin to imagine. Shaming an entire society is abuse. It does not provide solutions to real world problems, but, instead, invokes more problems, greater divisions between societies, and serves only to undermine those who work intimately with problems from a greater base of knowledge, understanding, and global perspective.

  • elliottsford@gmail.com says:

    For anyone who is interested in this topic, I would highly recommend the book ‘Saharasia: Origins of Sex Repression, Warefare and Violence’ by Dr James Demo. The book includes many cross cultural studies that convincingly identify the regions of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia as having the the most sex repressive attitudes in the world.


  • I liked this article a lot — and though it was a bit dense, and perhaps a bit too angry — it expressed a number of things that I felt, intuitively, while reading Daoud’s Op-Ed. Thank you for writing it.

    I think that criticizing Daoud for having a ‘survival story,’ though — is misplaced. As is the criticism of Daoud’s publication of this piece in The New York Times — as a ‘locus’ of publication. Both of these things are good, I think.

    First, because he did — in fact — survive. And his book was published. Which is amazing, unlikely, and cause for celebration.

    But also because The Times is a platform from which conversations of this size and intensity can take place. I’m grateful to them — and then to you — for having this discussion.

    I liked especially, in your piece: “Power, change, and collective healing will be found in people from the global Muslim diaspora being provided the space to tell their own stories: giving context to their histories and voicing their own lived experiences and cultural survival without resorting to Orientalist tropes.”

    And — yes — until that happens with more regularity, it is impossible for our intellectual world to heal itself. And God knows the American election cycle is doing no good for our wounds.

  • barrashee says:

    “The path to orgasm lies through death, not love” was the pithiest line in my opinion. It captured the odd fantasy of carnal rewards in the spiritual afterlife. Comments?

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