Johanna: Amal and I met on a trip to Morocco when I was visiting the city of Casablanca. I come from Australia, a western country, and Amal grew up in Morocco, which is a traditional Muslim country. Even with incredibly different cultural backgrounds, we share many beliefs, especially when it comes to bringing to an end harmful acts of violence against women, like sexual harassment.
We decided that we wanted to write together and share our thoughts on the shared difficulties that we have faced as women and where we both want to see change. While I argued sexual freedom is essential for improving women’s rights, Amal had a different perspective and thought that more sexual freedom would only lead to more male irresponsibility.
My question to Amal is, why is sex outside of marriage considered such a terrible thing?
Amal: In Morocco, we are not supposed to have sexual freedom yet men have more sexual freedom then women. Sex outside marriage is considered a terrible thing only for women. Some men justify their right to sexual freedom based on the fact that they are born male. For them, women are supposed to keep their chastity and should hold higher ethical standards than men.
If a woman has sex outside of marriage this often results in women, very unfairly, being rejected by their family members while men are not made to take any responsibility for their actions. Some traditional families consider having sex outside of marriage by their female relatives a dishonour for the family.
This gives men more freedom to have sex outside of marriage but also to insult and stigmatise women who do the same.
Johanna: A couple of years ago when I was doing a project in Argentina on human trafficking, I met a lawyer who was working on sex trafficking issues . He said, “Violence against women will not stop until women have the same sexual rights as men.” I completely agree with this.
Most forms of violence and discrimination against women are centred around controlling women’s sexual behaviour, as in the case of honour killings where they justify killing women on the basis that she has engaged in sexual activity. Or when men justify violence by saying that a woman “deserves” to be harassed because she is too sexual. If women had sexual freedom, then men wouldn’t be able to justify so much violence against women.
Amal: I believe that sexual relationships should happen through marriage. If men don’t make this commitment, then they have the freedom to run away and leave the mothers alone with their children. For example, in Morocco sex outside marriage is illegal and socially unacceptable but it happens. As a result, there are many babies who are abandoned just because society rejects single mothers and their children.
Mothers and children are entitled to inheritance. If the man dies and there is no agreement between the families like marriage, then how can a child born out of wedlock be recognised in the status of a son or a daughter and the inheritance can be fairly shared?
I think that women and children rights won’t be improved by allowing freedom in sexual relationships. When women ask for sexual freedom in relationships, then they are just helping men to get rid of their obligations.
Johanna: Some of the things that you’ve mentioned [with sexual rights] have a lot to do with culture.
If I use Australia as an example, there is sexual freedom, so everyone can chose their sexual partners and they can change them if they want to. Women are free to have as many boyfriends as they want, to choose their husband, to divorce their husband, and through all of this, if a man and a woman have a child together then the man is absolutely expected to care for his child. It’s socially unacceptable for a man to abandon his children and if he did, then I think most people would look at him badly. Also, if the parents are not together, then legally he is required to pay money to the mother to take care of the child. So I think it’s rare that men completely abandon their children, though it could happen.
So you can definitely have sexual freedom for both men and women and still have men required to be responsible for their children. If there is a strong culture in place, along with a strong legal framework that insists that men take responsibility for their children, then it works.
I know the problem of fatherless children is a problem in many countries. Latin America for example, there is a big problem of men abandoning their children. I noticed that this seems to be due to a lack of cultural pressure on men to care of their children as well as poverty and a general lack of respect for women. So in order to make men responsible for their children, then you have to make it culturally and legally required for them to be so.
Amal: It’s important to consider the surrounding culture before asking for the same sexual rights as the ones existing in countries like Australia. In Morocco 2017, there are still men who deny that their children are theirs, even with DNA tests.
Single mothers are in a vulnerable situation because the law clearly states that biological fathers are not required to take care of their children if they are born outside of marriage. Moreover, when single pregnant women go to the hospital to give birth, then they can be put in jail for having sex outside marriage.
The justice system is discriminatory towards single mothers and this lowers the social status of women. In this context, giving men sexual freedom allows them the freedom to sexually harass women while making women responsible for what these men are doing. So we need to put boundaries around men’s sexual behaviour socially and legally. If these boundaries are respected by men, then I don’t think that we will have issues with women’s rights.
Johanna: I agree that if men respected certain boundaries, then we would see less violence against women. However I think it’s only when we get rid of sexual constraints on women that we are going to see an improvement in women’s rights. Some of the most uncomfortable countries I have travelled in are the ones where there is no sexual freedom. The sexual harassment is horrible. When a woman’s sexuality is tightly controlled, then it’s assumed that she can be harassed, disrespected or raped should she in any way, shape or form be “too” sexual – whether this be because of her clothing, where she is walking or if she goes out at night.
In countries where there is more sexual freedom for women, then the situation of women’s rights is usually much, much better – mostly because men behave better. Men can’t use a woman’s behaviour as an excuse to sexually harass or justify violence against her.
We also have to change what is “normal”. We have to make it normal that women are respected regardless of their sexual behaviour and we have to make it normal that men are expected to be responsible towards their children.
So do you agree that women should have the same rights to sexual freedom as men?
Amal: I believe in equality. There should be no sexual double standards between men and women. If there are rules about no sex outside of marriage, then this should be applicable to both men and women. If a particular society believes in sexual freedom, then obviously both men and women should enjoy it. I believe that there should be restrictions on sexual freedom for the reason that I mentioned, so children can have full access to their rights from both parents. So for me, sexual relationships should only take place if there is an official agreement like civil or religious marriage.