Forbidden: Sexual frustration and youthful politics in Algeria

Islam’s prohibition on pre-marital sex, plus advancing ages of marriage, have created a frustrated generation — especially of young men.

RABAH, a Chaoui Berber from Tiffelfel in the heart of the Aures mountains, has just completed the final year of his masters’ course in mathematics at the University of Batna. He is 23, and like most young men his age whom I have interviewed about their sexuality, he mentions religion in the first five minutes.

His main concern is calculating the balance of his hasanat (or thawab; points for good deeds accumulated during his lifetime) and syiat (black marks for bad deeds). Whether he gets into paradise will depend on the difference between them. “I pray at the mosque five times a day, because you get 27 times more points than for praying at home.”

Rabah has had three girlfriends. The last was Dhikra. “We went out for a year and a half. She was very pretty and her father was rich. But I never kissed her on the mouth. Only on the hand or cheek. We split up a year ago, and I heard that she had a new boyfriend and had kissed him on the mouth. As far as I’m concerned, she’s just a tart now.” Premarital sex is “completely unthinkable” (it is a sin in the eyes of Allah), but he does admit to masturbating every day:“I know it’s haram [forbidden], but it relieves the pressure. At least you get fewer syiat than if a girl touches you.”

Lines that won’t be crossed

Rabah may not be telling the whole truth, but he can tell a foreign journalist things he couldn’t admit to a fellow Algerian without being judged, and what he says agrees more or less a with the testimony of the 50 or so other young people I have interviewed. 

Noureddin, 26, a fifth-year student at the University of Ouargla, is in a serious relationship with Sarah, a second-year student. “We’ve been together six years. Our fathers know each other, and we are going to be married, inshallah.” Unlike most of his friends, Noureddin has a car, which allows them to be alone sometimes. “We make love: we kiss each other on the mouth; we touch each other, but there’s a line we don’t cross. I would never sleep with her. That would be contrary to Islam. I treat her with respect. In fact, we spend most of our time just walking and talking. We play in the park, go to the zoo, and at 6pm I take her back to her hall of residence. After that, we go on talking by phone.”

Like all his friends, Noureddin has more than one mobile phone: one for his parents, one for Sarah (with unlimited calls from midnight to 6am) — and one for other girls. “It’s true, I’m a dribbler!” By “dribbling” he means juggling several girls he has met online (on Facebook or Skype), whose phone numbers he has got from friends or who he has (discreetly) chatted up in the street. “With these girls, it’s just for sex.” By “sex” he means finding a quiet spot where they can kiss, pet and perhaps, if she agrees, go as far as anal intercourse, but never vaginal penetration. “That’s forbidden. And anyway, I want to keep myself clean for Sarah on our wedding night.”

‘You have to lie to everyone’
Amira, 30, is a native of Algiers. She is veiled and lives alone in a small flat in the city centre, far from her parents’ house. She is studying for a doctorate in archaeology and is still a virgin. Like most Algerian women her age, she is not yet married. “But obviously I do have sexual urges. So I watch blue movies and I masturbate.” She also has a good friend who is willing to help without judging her. “I’ve called him over twice. We touch, and it makes us feel better. But obviously we don’t go any further.” No one else knows. “In Algeria, if you want to survive, you have to lie to everyone: your family, your friends, your boyfriend, even yourself, sometimes.”

There are no studies on premarital sex and romantic love among Algerian youth. A newspaper story in 2006 led anthropologist Abderrahman Moussaoui to conclude that Algerians may be resorting to common-law marriage (urfi or misyar) as a way of getting around the Muslim ban on premarital sex, though without giving any indication of the scale of the phenomenon. 

The testimony I have collected in 15 towns and cities (including Algiers, Oran, Annaba, Bejaia, Tizi Ouzou, Ouargla and Chelf) agrees, without significant regional variation, with the views of the researchers and professionals I have spoken to. “Most young Algerians regard female virginity as sacrosanct,” says Djelloul Hammouda, a doctor in Oran. “The unmarried young practice any form of sex that will preserve it.” The average age of marriage has risen considerably over the last 20 years, because it’s hard to find work and housing; it’s now 30 for women, 34 for men. Among Algeria’s 1.5 million students — whose numbers are growing exponentially — it is even higher.

At 35, Algerians are still considered young (two thirds of the population is under that age), and women who are still virgins at 40 are not rare. This is particularly true of highly educated women, who are often unable to find a man willing to accept that they are intellectually and financially independent. “I own a flat, but I can’t live there,” says Khadija, 43, a journalist from a good family in Annaba. “Because I am not married, everyone would automatically assume that I had lots of male visitors, and my family would be shamed.”

Young Algerians find it hard to manage their sexuality when marriage is such a distant prospect. The subject is taboo: they can’t talk about it with anyone — parents, siblings, not even their best friends. As Idir from Tizi Ouzou says, “The first time you go with a girl, you only know what you’ve seen in porn videos.”

Living in golden cages

Managing their sexuality is the major concern of most young people, because of their close and obsessive relationship with religion. “Because, apart from sex, they have everything,” says Kamel Daoud of the Quotidien d’Oran. “Their parents give them a roof over their heads and three meals a day, and they get oil money from the government. But they are bored. There are no amusements in Algeria. Every town needs a swimming pool, a library, a sports ground, a cinema, a theatre, but there’s absolutely nothing.”

Keltouma Aguis is studying for a doctorate in anthropology at the National Centre for Research in Social and Cultural Anthropology in Oran. (She doesn’t want to name her thesis supervisor, as it might harm her reputation.) While studying a peripheral subject, prostitution, Aguis became interested in the sex lives of young people: “Young Algerians face three obstacles to a normal sex life: religion, customs and the penal code, which all say the same thing. ”Article 333 of the penal code provides a custodial sentence of two months to two years and a fine of between 500 and 2,000 dinars ($6 and $25) for any “outrage to public decency”. It is regularly applied to young unmarried Algerians caught kissing or petting.

Visitors to Algeria quickly notice that while Islam is present, though not conspicuous, in public spaces, it dominates the conversation, especially when the talk is of sexuality: because Islam prohibits any kind of sex before marriage. Khaled Ait Sidhoum, a psychoanalyst in Algiers (and the only Algerian member of the International Psychoanalytical Association), says: “Young Algerians, men and women, are under great stress — unable to truly satisfy their desires and crushed by guilt after the few sexual experiences they allow themselves. Islam offers them an explanation that is endorsed by society, for the prohibitions they impose on themselves, and a collective framework that allows them to regulate their tensions. A bit like the Boy Scouts movement or a football supporters’ club.”

Padlocks of love
An incident that made a big impression on public awareness occurred last September: a small group of activists invited couples to fasten a small “padlock of love” to the safety fence on Telemly Bridge in central Algiers — until then known as the “suicide bridge” — in imitation of the locks couples fasten to some bridges in Paris. 

That evening, young men from the Telemly district, wearing Islamist qami (long shirts), broke off the padlocks, calling them “ungodly symbols of western decadence”. This unleashed a storm on the Internet and social networks. Ait Sidhoum says: “We have a saying in Kabylia: ‘He who has hay in his belly is afraid of fire.’ When you tease people about the thing they have most trouble managing, they are quick to get angry. Having said that, both sides are moved by the same urges to sex and violence. The difference is that the Islamist movements have a lot of money, so they always win.”

Another heavy burden on youth is custom and social control. “In Algeria,” says Said, 24, whom I meet in a café in Bejaia, “you can’t break the rules — you can’t actually have sex with a girl, or swear at your parents. You can’t afford to: you’d be out on the street, with no family, nothing.” In every village, in every neighbourhood, every apartment building, people watch each other; there are not many places where lovers can meet.

Getting a little privacy is almost impossible in rural areas, and very difficult even in major cities. Tea shops are among the few places where lovers can look into each other’s eyes, and maybe hold hands. If they want to hug or kiss, every city has its appointed spots: Galland Park and the Jardin d’Essai botanical garden in central Algiers, the seafront at Bejaia and Oran. A romantic must for residents of the Algiers area is a trip to the Roman ruins at Tipaza. But it’s a popular family destination, and there are large numbers of security guards on the lookout for lovers, as the slightest kiss is seen as “an affront to the family”.

‘Love Street’
You can’t take your girlfriend home (there’s always someone in the house, and the neighbours are watching), and it’s very rare to have a friend with a flat who can let you use it for a few hours. Sex is also out of the question in student rooms. Most Algerian university halls of residence are single-sex, and surrounded by high walls. Bejaia is the only “mixed” campus — the women’s halls of residence are in the same compound as the men’s — but each building is strictly off-limits to the other sex. 

At night, couples meet on “Love Street”, a dark alley behind the gym, where they stand and kiss among the rubbish, touching under clothes that are never removed. Last December a documentary on Ennahar TV showed hidden camera footage of female students drinking beer and going out after curfew (all student halls of residence in Algeria have one) to meet men. The tone of the documentary was critical, and most Algerians condemned the behaviour.

As Noureddin says, it’s easiest if you have a car: you can drive to a place you know, and stay in the vehicle. If you can’t afford a car, you can catch a bus to a public park with bushes for cover. In Ben Aknoun Park in Algiers, couples can be seen emerging from the undergrowth, the woman always dressed in a hijab or djellaba — like most in Algeria, especially since the Islamist terrorism of the 1990s. 

In the park I meet Mourad, who says: “But in places like this, in your car or in a park, you have to look out for two enemies: the police and louts. If the cops catch you, you could go to jail or, what’s worse for the girl, they might call her father to come and fetch her. There are louts everywhere: they’ll put a knife to your throat, rob you, touch your girl, and they know you can never tell anyone.”

State brothels

Those who have money sometimes get a room at a hotel. Or rather two rooms, since the hotel always wants to see your family record book if you ask for a double room. Prostitutes cost too much for the youngest, who in any case regard using them as the worst of sins. Most of their customers are married men or, less often, young men from the country. They are rarely part of the sexual education of young Algerians, and there are only three state brothels in Algeria: in Oran, Skikda and Tindouf. Most prostitution takes place in merkez (villas converted into brothels, more or less tolerated according to their owners’ relationship with the local authorities), in cabarets on the coast in Oran, Algiers and Bejaia, and in certain hotels.

“Young Algerians experience very high levels of sexual frustration,” says Dr Hammouda. “Even when they do have a real sex life (albeit without vaginal penetration), it is very limited, and the levels of frustration are certainly far higher than in Europe.” The Internet and mobile phones (“great for meeting people” according to Dihya, a young woman from Bejaia, wearing a veil) may have provided some temporary relief, but the net has turned out to have demerits too. 

“Contrary to expectation, the massive growth of Internet access over the last few years has not reduced frustration, but considerably increased it, by allowing users to glimpse possibilities they had never imagined until then, without providing any means of satisfying their new desires,”says Ait Sidhoum.

Chatting to complete strangers
The only leisure facility for young people is cyberspace. In every town and village there are sparsely furnished rooms with 20 or so computers, screens facing the wall. Nobody talks. They spend hours “chatting” to “friends”, often complete strangers they have met by chance on Facebook, Skype and in other chat rooms, or discreetly downloading short porn videos. An increasing number of households have their own connection, allowing young people to escape from family life for hours at a time.

One of the most obvious consequences of frustration is the aggressive way young men stare at and speak to young women in the busiest streets of major cities. Unemployed apprentice plumbers, Nordine and Bashir, 22 and 23, are hanging out in the arcades on Larbi Ben M’Hidi Street, the big shopping street in Oran. Two young women pass by, dressed normally: their heads are covered by a hijab, the shape of their bodies is hidden by several layers of dresses and pullovers under a djellaba. The young men harass the women with crude language because they don’t respond to the men’s advances, and call them qahabas (tarts), a word that crops up frequently in Algeria, in the sense of an “easy woman” rather than a prostitute. 

Keltouma Aguis says: “The word qahaba is used to describe any woman who aspires to a degree of independence, even if it is very small, relative to the social norms. She may assert her independence at home — refusing to clean the house or cook — or in public — by the clothes she wears, by smoking, by the way she walks, or simply by being in a particular place at a particular time. 

As soon as a woman transgresses one of the many non-sexual norms, she is seen as predisposed to transgress sexual norms if the opportunity arises.”All the young men I speak to regard the daughters of Algerians who have emigrated to France as qahabas. “It’s obvious,” says Mokhtar from Oran. “They go out whenever they like, they don’t wear headscarves, they smoke, they kiss their boyfriends in the street — they are tarts.”

“This sexual frustration is combined with very strong latent aggression,” says Nalia Hamiche, a clinical psychologist at Bab El Oued Hospital in Algiers. “The history of this country is made up of traumas that have never been addressed: colonial oppression, the war of liberation, then the civil war in the 1990s. These traumas, combined with sexual frustration, mean that Algerians are governed by their impulses. Men in the street are on the prowl, ready to attack at any time.” 

In every town, unspoken rules forbid women to be in certain places (most places) at certain times of day, especially after dark. “Women who don’t follow the rules are likely to be sexually assaulted.” Many of the women I talk to have been touched, some have been raped. “At the hospital, I see many cases of incest and paedophilia,” says Hamiche. “At home, at school, at the mosque… The victims are silent, because nobody will listen to them.”

The sexual predicament of the young helps to explain some social and political phenomena. “Sexual immaturity and financial dependence, everything is linked,” says Hamiche. “Oil money makes young people completely dependent on the state: they don’t need to work, the government provides schemes that allow them to get a minimal amount of money without any effort or merit. This immaturity and dependence stems from within the family. Up to the age of 30, 35 or even 40, children are not recognised as having a right to sexual or political maturity.”

Most of the young people I meet have never voted, saying they are disgusted by the lack of opportunities for political, social or associative activity in Algeria. What is left? Match nights and the occasional urban riot. Every day except Fridays, in many parts of Algeria, a water cut, a delay in getting connected to the gas supply, a promise of rehousing broken, or dustbins not collected, becomes an excuse for men to take to the streets. They shout, burn car tyres and dustbins, and then go home. 

Ait Sidhoum says: “Neighbourhood riots are a diversion that helps to relieve tension. But the relief they provide is trifling compared with the current levels of tension. The authorities don’t understand that the accumulated tension is like a time bomb.” The same is true of football, and the excessive jubilation that have followed each victory for the national team at the World Cup, resulting in deaths and injuries. 

Hamiche says: “Football stadiums, and the streets on nights when Algeria have won, become places where men resort to rowdinessas a means of fighting melancholy. They do it to give themselves the illusion that they are still alive.” But all that most young Algerians can do is to dream of emigrating to France (the French consulate received 500,000 visa applications in 2013, out of a population of 38 million), to risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean in small boats, or to join the jihad in Syria. Suicides are said to be on the rise, but the state does not publish figures.

These sexual hang-ups are to be found where least expected. Mohand, 34, is a journalist and a member of Barakat, a recently formed protest movement with some of the most committed activists in Algeria. He says: “When fellow activists come to my house, I send my wife to stay with her family in Kabylia.” Why? “Well, you see, we drink and smoke, and that would make her feel uncomfortable.” 

Naoual Belakhdar, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin who studies social movements, says: “A real sign of political change in Algeria will be when we see demonstrators taking to the streets with their girlfriends, their wives and their sisters.”

*All interviewee names have been changed. Reprinted with permission from Le Monde Diplomatique

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