Old subject, new ground

Wedad Lootah has received death threats for her book on sex and Islam. Is she proud to be kicking down barriers?
By Andrew White
Sat 24 Apr 2010 04:00 AM

Wedad Lootah has received death threats and plaudits for her book on sex and Islam. Proud of her work, she says kicking down barriers and breaking taboos is important for her society. Is she right?

It's not easy to read the expression of one who wears a full-length black niqab. The eyes are the only obvious window, but Wedad Lootah's give little away as she declines to shake my extended hand. It is an awkward moment, but then perhaps I should have known better.

A graduate in Islamic studies from the UAE's Islamic College, Lootah is the bestselling author of one of the most controversial books ever to have been published in the UAE. Top Secret: Principles and Etiquette of an Intimate Marital Relationship, is a remarkably frank examination of sexual relations between men and women, and their place in Islam.

The book deals with very sensitive sexual topics and solutions to sexual problems. It explores the "ignorance" of women and men over what is forbidden and allowed under Islam and even features a chapter subtitled ‘Sex-boosting Foods and Beverages'.

An Emirati national, Lootah is also the only female counselor at the Family Court of Dubai. She was appointed personally by HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 2001, and has channeled her experiences over the intervening nine years into Top Secret - the Arabic edition of which has, to date, sold close to 20,000 copies.

"At first I was only studying the subject, which developed into research," she recalls as we settle down at a wide meeting room table. "After developing it as research I found it was a very serious problem, so why not publish a book on the subject?"

Lootah has drawn applause and opprobrium in unequal measure - while the book is a hit among liberals, she has received death threats and finds herself ostracised by the majority of her family.

It's their loss, as she is electrifying company. Accompanied by her intelligent and erudite daughter Sharina - who provides a masterclass in translation skills over the course of our hour-long discussion - Lootah is at once measured and impassioned, deliberate and inspiring.

My earlier faux pas is quickly forgotten, and yet it does feel a little incongruous to be discussing intimate sexual mores with a covered woman from one of the most prestigious families in the UAE. So why has Emirati woman from such an otherwise conservative background chosen to tackle such an explosive topic?

"Many men, many Arabs, they cheat on their wives with lots of other women of different nationalities," claims Lootah.

"The wife stays at home, getting nothing from him and waiting for him to come home in the late hours.

"Women have the right to enjoy a sexual relationship with their husbands, rather than have the men off doing other things with other women," she continues.

"Emirati women don't talk about this subject - they are blind and they don't speak, but they know what is happening behind their backs. I wrote this book because I want these women to talk, and to call for their rights."

Needless to say, not everyone feels the same way about discussing such a sensitive topic in public. When she decided to self-publish Top Secret, Lootah faced almost universal criticism from her family as well as her colleagues at Dubai Courts.

"For locals and Emiratis this is too much, this is the first time a female has written something like this and it has been published," she says. "Maybe one in ten in our family supported us, and no-one at work did. Now they still oppose it - our relatives say ‘Don't talk about your book, and don't talk about sexual relationships'."

And if Lootah encountered a lack of support from within her own family and colleagues, it was nothing compared to the vitriol she faced from conservatives who argue she is guilty of blasphemy.

"One man called me in my office and told me ‘If I see you I will kill you'," she says sadly. "People said I was probably a secret agent for the US or Israel, because I was not a Muslim any more. These things are not supposed to be talked about, so maybe [the US or Israel] told me to talk about it.

"People started exaggerating about the content, word spreads and suddenly there was opposition everywhere, from Yemen to Kuwait, Egypt, Morocco, the whole Middle East, not just the UAE."

Although approved by the Mufti of Dubai, the book was censored in Saudi Arabia, and its opponents have declared its topics taboo. The Mufti himself warned that "Arab readers might not be ready for such a book", yet Lootah maintains that she will not be cowed by the threats of hardliners.

"After the death threats I acted as normal, I lived my life normally, and I didn't even tell the police," she insists. "I am very peaceful and I don't like argument. I am confident in what I wrote, and for every single paragraph in the book there is a quote, a reference, so it's not like I wrote this from my mind."Excerpts from the Holy Koran are an ever-present reminder of Lootah's Islamic education, as well as the book's origins in research. And if the scandal was unpleasant, it certainly didn't harm the book's box-office chances.

An English-language edition is currently being printed, and the book has topped bestseller charts at bookstores across the UAE.

"We were so surprised when it started to take off," says Lootah. "The first month when we went into Magrudy's [bookstore] and saw it was a bestseller... well, we thought ‘If people think this is not a good book, then why are so many buying it?'"

In all likelihood, Top Secret is flying off the shelves for two reasons. The controversy surrounding the book is always bound to shift a few copies, with curiosity getting the better of punters who otherwise wouldn't go near such a hot-button topic.

According to Lootah, it's also satisfying a desire in the Arab world for more comprehensive sex education, and for guides that cover "rights and wrongs" in the bedroom. In particular the book's readers want to know what is halal (permitted) and what is haram (wrong) according to Islam.

"One woman would not allow herself to kiss her husband all over his body," says Lootah, picking a real-life example to emphasise her point.

"He asked her a few times, about kissing and other things too, but she said no, it's forbidden," she continues. "In fact it is allowed, what the Koran tells us to do, and what the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) tells us to do."

According to Lootah, the couple divorced over the issue. Theirs was a marriage destroyed by bad education, she argues, "because some families do not tell their daughters about such things, how they can do these things, and how they can be in their sexual life".

Lootah is in the process of writing a second book, one that she says is a work of fiction, but will draw on her research as well as personal experiences. It will be published in the summer, but she does not anticipate any backlash as she says it will focus on the family and feature children.

Further into the future, Lootah may not be so fortunate. The author also plans to publish a series of sex education books for aimed at kindergarten, junior school and high school pupils.

"I want to write something for the younger generation, from kindergarten to high school. It's all about the development of children and the sex education they need," she says.

"First there will be a picture book for kindergarten that will grab their interest, and then for the bigger ones, grades one to six, there will be Islamic teachings in simple language," she explains. "Then for the higher grades who already know everything, there will be the dangers and the negative effects: what is right and what is wrong."

While Lootah anticipates "some problems" with her critics upon publication of the schoolbooks, she is not the only one calling for change in schools. Last month, a study by female Saudi students at King Saud University's Special Education Department concluded that there was a need for sex education in schools in the kingdom.

According to the study, 80 percent of participating parents, who were aged between 20 and 60, approved of the recommendation. The survey also found that 43 percent of parents were reluctant to share such information with their children themselves, while almost 90 percent said they were concerned their children may be sexually harassed or abused.

"People said ‘Why is she calling for sex education in high schools? Now our children will know things they are not supposed to know.' Of course the children already know about these things - they know a lot, even more than their parents do," says Lootah.

Lootah's message will take time to filter through - to the reactionary conservatives who threaten her life, and to the family members who refuse to accept her work. In the meantime, she will continue with her work at Dubai Courts, gathering material, and changing lives.

"Some of the family has softened, but not all of them," she says. "Some still say ‘Wedad, please don't talk about this subject, please try to change the subject'. It doesn't work though."

As the interview draws to a close, Sharina vouches for her mother's commitment to the cause. Now that Lootah's work is gaining greater publicity, there are more demands than ever on the author's time - whether in packed lectures, or fielding long-distance phone calls from inquisitive honeymooning couples.

"Mum is always on the phone - she is busy, busy, busy," smiles Sharina, rolling her eyes. "I feel very proud, though. I was annoyed by friends in school - wherever I went people would say ‘Oh you're her daughter, how come your mum wrote this book?' But I feel this is important; I see what is happening."

Sharina is certainly of a different generation to her mother. She dresses differently - a headscarf rather than niqab - and she is happy to shake hands. And yet there is an unmistakable resemblance between mother and daughter. You can see it in the way they are unafraid to discuss openly subjects that might previously have been considered taboo. And you can see it in their eyes, too.

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