'Sex And Lies' Author Leila Slimani: 'Women's Lives Matter'

Jul 16, 2020
Originally published on July 16, 2020 6:45 pm

The sex lives of people in Morocco are shaped by cultural forces — and also the penal code. Sex outside marriage is illegal, and so is abortion in almost all cases. Adultery is punishable by prison time. And as for violating Morocco's cultural laws — those punishments fall mostly on women.

The French-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani explores the places where desire, intimacy and the patriarchy collide in her new book, Sex and Lies: True Stories of Women's Intimate Lives in the Arab World.

As a girl and then a teenager, Slimani says, "I always heard people speaking about girls as dangerous. The fact that you can be raped, that you can be attacked. And also that being a woman was being a temptress. So I've always had this idea that I had something in me that was dirty, that was not pure, and everyone was talking about the good girls. You know, this ideal of the good girl who is pure, who is, of course, a virgin, who is going to sacrifice herself for other people. And I could feel, even as a very young girl, that I was not this kind of girl. So I couldn't feel pure, and I felt that I was going to disappoint my whole society."


Interview Highlights

On Morocco's unofficial motto for sex: Do what you wish, but never talk about it.

It means that the big problem now in Morocco is that the penal code lays down imprisonment of up to a year for anyone engaging [in] sex before marriage. Two years for adultery and three years if you are homosexual. Abortion is illegal. But, of course, as you can imagine, everyone is having sex in Morocco like everywhere else. But if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can always be arrested, or you will have to give some money to a policeman or to someone if you don't want to have a problem. So everyone is telling you, OK, do whatever you want, but lie all the time. And especially women — for a woman, it's very difficult to live openly and to speak with honesty of your sexual life. People want you to be a hypocrite and a liar and to hide yourself.

On one woman, Nour, featured in the book

What is tragic now in Morocco is that I meet a lot of [women] who say to me, yeah, I would love to be free, but I'm not sure it's worth it. - Leila Slimani

She was a very shy woman, very, very sweet. And I asked her if she wanted to share things with me when it comes to sexuality. And I asked her very intimate questions, and at the beginning, because she was shy, I was afraid she was going to reject me. But she said, yes, I have something to tell you. And at the beginning of the conversation, I understood that something very violent and something terrible happened to her. So what is very sad with this testimony is that at the end, I'm not sure that this woman is going to be a free woman. I'm not sure she's going to choose this path, the path of freedom, because she understands very much that it's going to cost her a lot. And it's what is tragic now in Morocco is that I meet a lot of [women] who say to me, yeah, I would love to be free, but I'm not sure it's worth it. I'm going to lose so much being a free woman that maybe I prefer to be alienated and to do what society wants me to do, because I'm too afraid to be free.

On the connection between sexual repression and sexual violence

You know, the problem is that there is no gray zone between the whore and a virgin. You're a whore or a virgin. You can't be something else. So, of course, the way people look at you when you are a free woman, or when you act free, or when you — for instance, you speak out, you give your opinion, the way you can behave in the street. And men will see you. And in a certain way, I think he wants to punish you. He wants to punish you for this freedom, because this freedom is defying him, is defying his power.

On the audience she hopes to reach

What I want to say to Moroccan society is that women's lives matter, even if those women are just simple women. - Leila Slimani

I have women friends, women who are Jews, for instance, and who lived in a very Orthodox family — she said it's exactly the same in every religion: Woman is depicted, is described as a provocateur, as a temptress. It's the figure of Eve who is eating the apple, and everything is a mess after that. So I want to speak to everyone. And, you know, to use a very famous quote now, I would say that what I want to say to Moroccan society is that women's lives matter, even if those women are just simple women. And no one is seeing them. No one is having any consideration for them. And when they speak about sex, people are just going to judge and to say you're a whore and we don't want to hear you. And I want to tell them, no, that's not true. These women matter. And we have to listen to them.

On why women are singled out for sexual censure

That's still a mystery for me. And I'm not sure that I really have the answer to this question. But I think that we have this idea that men need sex. For men, it's a need, like he needs to eat, he needs to drink and he needs to have sex. So there is no judgment of that — it's not a moral problem. He just needs that. For women, it's very different. I think that's the way our cultures, and especially the monotheist religions, look at the woman's desire — it's very mysterious. We don't really understand what provokes it.

On the criticism that demanding sexual liberation in Morocco is imposing Western values

You know, I believe in universality, and I think that a desire to be free is not something that belongs to Western world. We all want to be free. I want to be free. And I was not born in France or in a Western country. I was born and raised in Morocco. And I can understand freedom, equality, justice. And anyone from China to Peru and Morocco can ask for that — for justice, for freedom, for equality. And I think that it's a misunderstanding — it's a complete misunderstanding of what I am trying to do.

This story was edited for radio by Noah Caldwell and Jolie Myers and was adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The sex lives of people in Morocco are shaped by cultural forces and also the penal code. Sex outside of marriage is illegal, as is abortion in almost all cases. Adultery is punishable by up to two years in prison. And as for violating the cultural laws of the country, those punishments fall mostly on women. The French Moroccan writer Leila Slimani explores the places where desire, intimacy and the patriarchy collide in her new book. It's called "Sex And Lies: True Stories Of Women's Intimate Lives In The Arab World." And when I spoke with Slimani earlier, I started by asking about her childhood in Morocco and what she learned about sex growing up.

LEILA SLIMANI: When I was a little girl and then a teenager, I've always heard people speaking about girls as dangerous, the fact that you can be raped, that you can be attacked, and also that being a woman was being a temptress. So I've always had this idea that I had something in me that was dirty, that was not pure. And everyone was talking about the good girls, you know, this ideal of the good girl who is pure, who is, of course, a virgin, who is going to sacrifice herself for other people. And I could feel even as a very young girl that I was not this kind of girl. So I couldn't feel pure. And I felt that I was going to disappoint my whole society.

MCCAMMON: You write about what you describe as an unofficial Moroccan motto when it comes to sex. Do what you wish but never talk about it. What does that mean in practice?

SLIMANI: It means that the big problem now in Morocco is that the penal code lays down imprisonment of up to a year for anyone engaging sex before marriage, two years for adultery and 3 years if you are homosexual. Abortion is illegal. But, of course, as you can imagine, everyone is having sex in Morocco like everywhere else. But if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can always be arrested or you will have to give some money to a policeman or to someone if you don't want to have a problem. So everyone is telling you, OK, do whatever you want but lie all the time - and especially women. For a woman, it's very difficult to live openly and to speak very - with honesty of your sexual life. People want you to be a hypocrite and a liar and to hide yourself.

MCCAMMON: I want to talk about one woman you speak with in the book. Her name is Noor (ph). And I feel like she really embodies the push and pull around sexuality at the heart of this book, a desire for liberation in a society that's not built around women's desires. Tell us about her and why you included Noor in the book.

SLIMANI: She was a very shy woman, very, very sweet. And I asked her if she wanted to share things with me when it comes to sexuality. And I asked her very intimate questions. And at the beginning, because she was shy, I was afraid she was going to reject me. But she said, yeah, I have something to tell you. And at the beginning of the conversation, I understood that something very violent and something terrible happened to her. So what is very sad with this testimony is that at the end, I'm not sure that this woman is going to be a free woman. I'm not sure she's going to choose this path, the path of freedom, because she understands very much that it's going to cost her a lot. And it's what is tragic now in Morocco is that I meet a lot of woman who say to me, yeah, I would love to be free, but I'm not sure it's worth it. I'm going to lose so much being a free woman that maybe I prefer to be alienated and to do what society wants me to do because I'm too afraid to be free.

MCCAMMON: And these are not just stories about women choosing sexual liberation. Several of the women you write about also experienced sexual abuse, sexual assault. Do you see any connections between sexual repression in a culture on the one hand and sexual violence on the other?

SLIMANI: Absolutely. You know, the problem is that there is no gray zone between the whore and the virgin. You're a whore or a virgin. You can't be something else. So, of course, the way people look at you when you are a free woman or when you act free or when you, for instance, you speak out, you give your opinion, the way you can behave in the street. And men will see you. And in a certain way, I think he wants to punish you. He wants to punish you for this freedom because this freedom is defying him, is defying his power.

MCCAMMON: Morocco, of course, is a predominantly Muslim country. But I grew up in the American Christian purity movement, and I've written about it as a journalist. And I have to say, as I was reading your book, a lot of what you describe resonates - the secrecy around sex, the social pressure to be a virgin or at least defined as a virgin officially. It all seemed very familiar. Who do you see as the audience for this book?

SLIMANI: No, I completely understand what you say. And I have woman - friends who are Jews, for instance, and who lived in a very Orthodox family. And she said it's exactly the same. And in every religion, woman is depicted as, described as a provocateur, as a temptress. It's the - of Eve, who is eating the apple, and everything is a mess after that. So I want to speak to everyone. And, you know, to use a very famous quote now, I would say that what I want to say to Moroccan society is that women lives matter, even if those women are just simple women and no one is seeing them. No one is having any consideration for them. And when they speak about sex, people are just going to judge and to say you're a whore and we don't want to hear you. And I want to tell them, no, that's not true. Those women matter, and we have to listen to them.

MCCAMMON: Why do you think - this idea of the good girl, I mean, it does exist in many cultures - right? - regardless of religion or country. Why do you think women are singled out for this kind of censure for their sexual behavior in so many parts of the world that men are not?

SLIMANI: That's still a mystery for me. And I'm not sure that I really have the answer to this question. But I think that we have this idea that men need sex. For men, it's a need. Like, he needs to eat. He needs to drink. And he needs to have sex. So there is no judgment of it that. It's not a moral problem. He just - he needs that. For women, it's very different. I think that the way our culture is - and especially in the Middle East religion - look at the woman desire as very mysterious. We don't really understand what provokes it.

MCCAMMON: Your book originally was published in French in 2017. And many of your critics have accused you of a colonialist mindset, that this idea of sexual liberation is a product of Western thinking and that demanding it in a place like Morocco is forcing Western values on people who do not want them. How do you respond to that?

SLIMANI: You know, I believe in universality. And I think that a desire to be free is not something that belongs to Western world. We all want to be free. I want to be free. And I was not born in France or in a Western country. I was born and raised in Morocco. And I can completely understand freedom, equality, justice. And anyone from China to Peru and Morocco can ask for that, for justice, for freedom, for equality. And I think that it's a misunderstanding, it's a complete misunderstanding of what I am trying to do.

MCCAMMON: Leila Slimani. Her new book is called "Sex And Lies: True Stories Of Women's Intimate Lives In The Arab World." And it's out this week.

Thank you so much for talking with me.

SLIMANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.