Underneath the Burka

A provocative new book lifts the veil on love, sex — and what the "Arab Spring" really means for women.

Joumana Haddad is fed up with the notion that all Arab women are silent, submissive, and hopelessly oppressed. The Lebanese poet, author, and publisher of an erotic magazine lets loose in her new book, I Killed Scheherazade (in reference to the man-pleasing heroine of Arabian Nights). We checked in with the Carrie Bradshaw of Beirut.

What's the biggest sexual taboo in the Arab world?

Having sex before marriage. The honor of the whole Arab world lies between the Arab woman's legs. It's really heavy. I don't know how she can walk. There's so much hypocrisy, like the practice of "hymenoplasty" — getting your "virginity" back before getting married. So many women here do that. They don't think they have a right to a sexual life. They have sex in secret, then go and become virgins again — I'm talking about Muslims and Christians alike. I have acquaintances who have done that. What kind of man needs this illusion to be the first in order to feel strong?

In the West, men aren't so eager to find a virgin.

Right. Who would want a virgin? In Islam, some say that if you're a good Muslim, a good man, you'll be rewarded with 72 virgins when you die. Who would want 72 virgins? That sounds like a lot of work. That's the opposite of a reward.

What are other sexual taboos in Arab society?

Homosexuality is very discriminated against. And talking about sex — you cannot discuss it in the open. But polygamy is not a taboo. Neither is pedophilia. Shouldn't that be a taboo?

Your book notes that there are more than 50 million child brides in the world, mostly in Muslim countries. Why do some men want to marry a child?

I think it has a lot to do with low self-esteem. They want to pick the fruit as soon as it becomes ready. But it's also the responsibility of mothers and fathers who agree on marrying their daughters at that age.

You argue that Arab women are liberated. But then we read that a Saudi woman is lashed for the "crime" of being raped.

I'm not trying to present a different reality. The stories are true. I try to promote the good examples — beyond the sad stories that make the news in the West — to show that there's another Arab woman out there.

Is it true that men in conservative countries watch the most porn?

You saw the reports of Osama bin Laden having a stash of porn. Even if this is not true, how many people are like that in the Arab world? How many people preach about being religious, yet in secret they have these perverse practices because they are not able to have a healthy sex life? This is when you get sick — when you're not allowed to live your life normally. You become obsessed with everything that is forbidden. The most Googled word in Arabic is sex.

We hear and read stories of Arab women wearing sexy lingerie under the burka. Is that a fair representation?

It is exaggerated. Some Western men like to imagine a sexy, hot creature under that black veil. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't.

You grew up in a conservative Christian family in Beirut. How did you become so outspoken about sex?

It started when I was 12, when I read a book from the top shelf of my father's library — by the Marquis de Sade.

You're 40 now, a married mother of two, and you run the erotic magazine Jasad (Body). How do you get away with that job in Beirut?

When I started it, it was as if hell's doors opened in front of me. I received serious threats. It's also a financial challenge: I haven't had one paid advertisement since I started it two years ago.

Is the "Arab Spring" really bringing about change for women?

Nothing has changed. The women we see protesting get pushed aside after the revolution, at the moment of real change. It's scandalous. The real thing that makes me angry is that there aren't enough angry people in the world.

Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.