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


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.

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.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.