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A Palestinian woman walks by a display of Islamic headscarves for sale in Ramallah. A Palestinian woman walks by a display of Islamic headscarves for sale at a shop in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Feb. 28, 2007 (AP photo by Muhammed Muheisen).

Sex in Ramallah: Between Islam and Globalization

Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2007

The strict morality of life in Ramallah, where honor killings might be performed when pregnancies occur outside of marriage, means navigating the issue of sex is extremely fraught. Young people must balance the images they receive from the outside world and their continual anxiety about committing sin if they should follow their natural urges before marriage.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — On first glance, the city of Ramallah in the West Bank appears boring: conservative and chaste. Most women wear headscarves and quickly avert their eyes when men are watching. There is nothing flirtatious about the gesture. In the course of discussions with Palestinian youngsters, however, one discovers that they live in two worlds: they are entirely familiar with 2007 high tech. But at the same time, their lives are marked by a 1,500-year-old culture that is resistant to globalization. Because satellite television has brought modernity into their homes, the youngsters are continually anxious about committing sin if they should follow their natural urges too soon.

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Sheikh Fahmi Jaradat praises the prudishness of the Palestinian youth. He is a judge on the Islamic court and he explains without any ambiguity how young unmarried people are supposed to deal with their sexuality: "All physical contact is prohibited outside of marriage." Marriage was created by Allah to preserve the family and the highest goal of every couple must be "reproduction," as the Sheikh puts it. The satisfaction of sexual desire, he says sternly, is not the goal of marriage.

To begin my investigations in this city in which sex is only allowed to be a means to "reproduction," I strike up a conversation with a young man. He is hanging out in Manara Square: a kind of Palestinian Piccadilly Circus, only much smaller. Mohanin is 26-years-old and unemployed. The briefcase that he is carrying is filled with CVs: he is looking for a job. Without a job, he explains to me, he cannot afford to get married. Since he tells me that he does not have a girlfriend, I indiscreetly ask about his sex life. "I am learning to be patient," he responds shyly. Playing sports helps: After a game of soccer or a swim, for instance, he says he feels better. The young women in the area will not make it easy for him, he says. If a girl has the impression that her boyfriend has no regular income and no prospect of getting married, she breaks off the relationship. "Caressing, let along anything more"—he laughs in embarrassment—"is out of the question. Every respectable woman, after all, wants to be a virgin when she gets married."

Even for those who have enough money, getting married is not a simple matter—as I discover by talking to the 25-year-old Suheb, whom I meet in an ice cream parlor. He wants to marry his cousin. She is six years younger than he is and he has known her since childhood. "We are in love," he says. In the meantime, they are engaged and they can see one another without having to have a third person around as chaperone. They can even hug and kiss now. Sleeping together, however, is excluded: "She has to retain her virginity until we are married." A pregnancy outside of marriage could prove to be life-threatening for his girlfriend: "Her family would kill her."

Such fears are justified. In the last year alone, Palestinian authorities have recorded some sixty cases of "honor killings": women killed because they were accused of having "immoral" sexual relationships. The victims are strangled or struck dead with a hammer. In order to benefit from the milder sentences for minors, a younger brother will often be chosen by the family to carry out the deed. But Palestinian law also shows clemency toward adult murderers: The perpetrators of "honor killings" spend as little time in prison as chicken thieves.

Unmistakable Signals

Suheb has a job: He works for the Palestinian government in Ramallah in an office that organizes protests against the Israeli wall and settlements. He had not been paid for months -- "you know, the West and Israel are boycotting the Hamas government"—but now the government in the West Bank is solvent and he has money in the bank again.

"So why not get going and get married?" I suggest. According to tradition, it is not possible yet, he explains. There are four steps in all that have to be completed before a marriage can be consummated. First, the family of the groom must formally ask for the bride's hand in marriage. If the two families are mutually agreed, then a religious judge comes to them and reads aloud from the Quran. From this point on, the young couple is man and wife as far as Islamic law is concerned. But sex is only permitted once the whole town has been invited to a celebration and notified that the two young people now belong together. The husband-to-be also buys jewelry for his prospective wife. Suheb has spent the equivalent of 1,500 euros. That is a lot of money, he says: "But if she wasn't my cousin, it would have been even more expensive."

Suheb introduces me to one of his buddies: Hussein. Hussein studied architecture in Hebron and now he works as a bartender in a fitness club, since he has not been able to find any other work. Suheb recommended that I speak to Hussein, since he "knows the scene": He listens to the conversations at the bar and knows what is going on in Ramallah.

Hussein is a conservative young man. He says that his future wife must fulfill two conditions: First, she must be able to recite the Quran from memory. And, second, he must be sure that she has never spoken with another man. He does not know if he will ever marry: "I have lost faith in women," he says disappointedly.

Hussein is disgusted by what, in his opinion, young women in Ramallah are up to. It is pure prostitution, he says. What he means by this is their allegedly "loose" behavior vis-à-vis the opposite sex. He explains that he has often seen how such floozies send unmistakable signals: with a coy look or a smile, and then that leads sooner or later to a rendezvous and sometimes even to a child in the end.

Many of these "loose" women are supposed to come from northern Palestine, on Hussein's account: from Jenin, for example. In Ramallah, they can exploit the fact that nobody knows them. The numerous apartment houses are also supposed to abet the spread of immorality: In the new buildings, one does not even know one's neighbors any more, Hussein points out.

In order to prove to me that this description of the decline of morals in Ramallah is accurate, Suheb takes his cell phone from his pocket. He tells me that I should have a look at the video clip that young Palestinians have been sending one another the last few days. He looks around carefully to make sure that no one else will be able to see the scenes that he wants to play for me and he shields the screen with his hand. And, in effect, what is to be seen there is pure pornography. A young woman is performing fellatio on a male member. She is wearing a pink headscarf and only part of her face is visible. The scene is repeated several times and the headscarf always remains in place. Suheb says that he has already had this clip sent to him a half dozen times and he wants to show me some more scenes.

I ask him if he knows the "producers" of the clip. He says that he recognizes the girl and he has an idea who the man could be. Most of the sex offenders, he says, come from the Al-Aqsa Brigades: "They have weapons and the women are afraid of them." Besides, they also have lots of money, he points out. Anyone who would resist them, risks being killed.

In Ramallah, one only has to take a few steps to move from one world to another. Whereas piety and headscarves dominate on the streets, on the rooftops one can enjoy oneself a bit more. Young men and women who want to be together without being observed retreat to the countless restaurants on the rooftops of Ramallah: the so-called "roofs." Hussein, the bartender, recommends the Café "Layalina," which—promisingly—means something like "Our Nights." Situated on the eighth floor, "Layalina" is known as a meeting place for lovers, Hussein says, as if he has to apologize for the bad morals in his city: "People kiss there and sit pressed up against one another."

The interior designer has created cozy niches for the clientele: alcoves, screens, and soft lighting. A touch of intimacy—so hard to come by in Ramallah—that permits the couples to escape the strict moral precepts of their environment for a short while. But the scenes of the young couples are in fact even more harmless than Hussein's description suggests. Two or three couples are shyly holding hands or reading together a message on the cell phone—a pretext for coming closer to one another.

A Temporary Marriage Certificate

Life in such a traditional environment is not only difficult for persons who are still single, but also for widows and divorced women. Ever since her divorce, 34-year-old Nur from Gaza, for instance, has been ostracized by her family. She cannot hope for any support from them. After the divorce, she was confined by her father, who accused her of having brought shame upon the family.

Islamic law in Palestine offers the possibility of a special status for such cases: a temporary marriage or, in Arabic, "missiar." Missiar constitutes a marriage contract that is legally valid, but not publicly recognized. Within the framework of a missiar marriage, Nur has married a second time with a Palestinian businessman who is twenty years her senior and who lives in Dubai. "Every three months, he comes to visit me for two or three days," Nur explains, "and we live together." Nur regards the temporary marriage certificate as a help. By virtue of it, she gains a certain respect from her family and it frees her from the clan's burdensome attempts to influence how she lives. "Missiar places me under the authority of a man and protects me from the family's nonsense," Nur says. And then she cites an Arabic saying: "The shadow of a man is better than the shadow of a wall."

We go to see Sheikh Jaradat again. We want him to tell us what he thinks of missiar. It is, above all, well-to-do business men who like to sign a missiar contract, he says: "For men, missiar is a cheap way to be able to have sex legally without having to take on obligations towards one's partner and without violating the precepts of Islam, which forbids sex outside of marriage." He regards the fact that the marriage is from the start supposed to be merely temporary as a disgrace. Nonetheless, even if reluctantly, he still recognizes missiar as a full-fledged marriage. It humiliates the woman, he says, turning her into the man's slave. And, in the last analysis, that is acceptable for divorced women or widows, the Sheikh says, but not, however, for virgins or women who have been well raised.

Pierre Heumann is the Middle East correspondent of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche. "Sex in Ramallah" originally appeared in German in the August 23 issue (No. 34/07) of Die Weltwoche. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.

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