As part of a series about young people in the Middle East, the BBC News website explores relationships in Cairo where sex outside wedlock is taboo – but some say not uncommon.
Fatima and her boyfriend had been together for about two years when she discovered she was pregnant.
“I had to have an abortion. I didn’t want to do it, but in this society I didn’t have any choice,” she says, now an outspoken 27 year-old.
“I hate it when I remember it, because it was a very, very bad experience.” Her family know nothing of her ordeal.
Mido, 28, has had four serious girlfriends. He has had sex several times and feels no guilt, but would never tell his parents.
“I don’t have the courage to shake their beliefs – especially my father’s,” he says.
Niveen, 24, has been seeing her boyfriend for four months. They plan to move in together without their parents finding out.
“Whenever you have a relationship here you have to take risks, and this is the risk I’m taking,” she says.
Spending the night together is difficult as both live at home with their families. Even going to a hotel means checking into different rooms and sneaking between them.
With their secret lifestyles, these three young people from Cairo’s liberal, intellectual elite are pushing at the limits set by a society dominated by traditional views.
Even among educated urbanites, the concept of an unmarried mother simply does not exist. A bride’s virginity is so highly prized that doctors charge up to 1000 Egyptian pounds (US$173) to reconstruct a young woman’s hymen.
But there are perceptions that in general, at least in Cairo, sex before marriage is widespread and increasing as spiralling costs and high unemployment push marriage ages up.
On any summer evening along Cairo’s 6th October Bridge, veiled figures nestle up to young men. The couples gaze down into the Nile, engaged in intimate conversation amid the blaring horns and traffic fumes.
Locals will tell you this is increasing as it becomes more socially acceptable, and that many of these couples are from Cairo’s poorer areas.
But there is debate over whether this new openness about courtship is resulting in more premarital sex.
Gynaecologist Rima Khofash works among both rich and poor in Cairo and estimates that about 50% of young people have pre-marital sex.
“I think now there is a revolution in sex between young people – they do it haphazardly – often in short-term relationships.”
Abortion is illegal in Egypt in all but a few cases. Approximately one woman a month comes to her clinic with complications resulting from a backstreet termination, she says.
Dr Khofash is certain that the number of abortions is increasing: “All gynaecologists know this, but we don’t know how much it is increasing by.”
But Dr Sahar Tawila of Cairo University, who co-ordinated one of the most comprehensive studies ever of young people in Egypt, believes the prevalence of sex before marriage has been dramatically overblown in the Egyptian media.
It is not widespread. Sexual relationships do exist, but they should be put in proportion.”
In the 2001 nationwide study, 21% of young men with higher education said they knew someone who had had pre-marital sex – and this dropped to 1.4% among the uneducated.
Dr Tawila says young people, particularly girls, are highly aware of the risks of pre-marital sex.
For example, Shaymaa, 20, is in love with Ashraf, her boyfriend of 18 months. But she refuses anything more intimate than holding hands.
If she has sex with him, she explains, she may end up being forced to marry him, which she is not yet sure she wants to do. “Virginity is your whole life,” she says.
Ashraf, 26, says he has been pushing her towards intimacy: “I just have to stop at a point when I am sure she will refuse to sleep with me – that means she is a good girl.”
Many more young women say they plan to stay virgins until they marry. Several point out that girls face more pressure to do so than boys.
“Boys I know have many girlfriends, even at the same time. One of my best friends told me he made love with his girlfriend and then said ‘I won’t ever marry her – she’s not a virgin’,” one 19-year-old female student said.
This pressure drives the demand for hymen reconstruction operations, which can even involve stitching a small capsule of red fluid into the vagina to ensure wedding night “bleeding”.
Gynaecologist Ahdy Wahid Rizk says that each week, two or three young women visit his central Cairo clinic to ask about hymen reconstruction, despite the fact that he has always refused to carry out the illegal operation.
But even so, those having premarital sex may well still be a small minority. For those who would like to, there are still many barriers.
Mona, 27, was with her boyfriend for two years: “We didn’t have full sex. We didn’t have a place to do it. If it was easier, yes, I think I would have liked to. But it’s also our traditions that stopped me. I felt guilty about what we did.”
And many others simply believe it is wrong, like Cairo University student Mohammed Esmat, 20: “I’m a Muslim and in Islam sex before marriage is forbidden, so I am against it.”
Some names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees.
Are you young in the Middle East? How do young men and women get to know other in your country? Are you having a secret relationship?
The following comments reflect the balance of views received:
I did not want to comment about my own experiences. Insead I would like to point out what I think is somewhat of a mistake in this article. It is true that ‘clothing in Egypt is becoming more liberal’ but this is ONLY for the ‘wealthy-liberal-elite’, who often cannot wear such clothing openly in the streets. The ‘liberalisation’ of clothing for the rich is only happening with a contrasting backdrop of conservative dress for the lower and even middle classes.
Wyatt Elmokadem, Cairo
Unfortunately, this is one area where our society is extremely hypocritical and in self-denial. The natural desire to have sex is guiltily denied by the person and considered taboo by society, even though it is only human instinct. Everyone thinks about it, but no one will admit it. The second issue is that men will take advantage of their dominant role in society, as well as the lack of proof of their virginity, to have pre-marital sex while condemning women for the same thing. Most of my friends have had sex numerous times with numerous women (and continue to chase others), but will think of women who are far less promiscuous as non-marriage material. Talk about a double standard! These two problems (self-denial and male hypocrisy) must be transformed into openness and equality through dialogue.
Sherif, Cairo, Egypt
Well being an Egyptian living in Canada, my parents tend to understand the relationship between me and Egyptian girlfriend, who I met at university. We have talked about sex, but I have to respect her decision not have sex because of her strong beliefs and this makes me a better person.
Raheem Khalil, Toronto, Canada
In Iraq premarital sex is extremely forbidden and is rare. In tribal environments having premarital sex means losing you and the girl’s life.
Hussain, Baghdad, Iraq
It is true there exits premarital sex in almost all societies, including here in Egypt. But I think the issue here is exaggerated. I just graduated from university and from the people I know only five percent may have experienced premarital sex. Educated people don’t do it – not because of the culture but because of religion, Islam, and this is the way it should be. It is so immature, people doing such things then regretting it afterwards.
Ameer, Cairo, Egypt
Reading this article and people’s comments really resonates with the time I’ve spent studying in Egypt. Many of my male friends there were indeed from the middle class and the sexual frustration among them was palpable. Interestingly, it was this very same group which was constantly hanging around the mosque. One can easily understand how men in their early twenties, who are caught between a cultural and religious tradition which frowns on “improper” relations on one hand and their latent sexual urges on the other, might be very attracted to religious and social institutions – such as women wearing headscarves – designed to minimise the stirring up of sexual desires. Egyptians are generally religious, but I think these young men’s sexual frustration makes them far more prone to accepting forms of Islam which more resemble ideology than they do religion.
Judd, Washington, DC, USA
Aren’t there infinitely more important things for our societies to be concerned about than whether or not a girl is a virgin? Why is female sexuality viewed as something which must be controlled? How many girls and women have been irreparably damaged from dirty, back-street abortions because of the stigma and illegality of treatment? It is important that these issues be discussed. The silence makes hypocrites of everyone.
Farah, Beirut, Lebanon
I’m a Copt, a Christian Egyptian, living in Australia. My family and I left Egypt 16 years ago. Every time we go back to visit I am surprised by how things are changing. However I still find it difficult to imagine that pre-marital sex is becoming more and more acceptable. Even here in Australia, Coptic families instil in their children the importance of remaining chaste before marriage. To us, its a matter of spirituality… no question about it.
Neveen, Melbourne, Australia
I am Hindu and in my culture, too, sex before marriage is forbidden. I am almost 25 and have been seeing my boyfriend for four years now but we have never broken the rules. I strongly believe that we should try to preserve our culture and customs instead of wildly following the Western ways. We have to understand that being Western in not always cool.
I am a physician from a Muslim country where talking about sex is taboo, unfortunately most of my friends, even specialists and nurses, have pre-marital sex. Hymenoplasty is another issues that is growing more and more, we had a hard time finding a girl for my brother to marry as most of the girls we had found, were not virgins. They think because they are Muslim, they are pure.
Parvaneh, Tehran, Iran
I hate the double standards set by a lot of Islamic societies that turn a blind eye towards Muslim men for being promiscuous either after marriage or before so I think it is really good that sex is being openly discussed in Muslim societies. Hopefully it will lead people to realise that women like men have sexual needs that need to be met. Therefore, it is important for society to realise that women are not “loose” or “indecent” if they sleep with a man they love before marriage, as long as the female is comfortable and loves her man and know her man well enough to have premarital sex.
Premarital sex is totally forbidden in Islam whether it is done by a male or female. The punishment for such an immoral act is the same for both the sexes. So let’s not argue that this does not have an impact on boys as much as girls. In the hereafter, both will face the same.
Iqbal, Blackburn, England
I do not know in general how do men and women get to know each other. Most went to school together since we have mixed private schools and meet there. Friendships and relationships evolve when studying abroad, in Sharjah, Beirut and the US. But these days women face an enormous pressure to be intimate with a boyfriend. I am 22 years old and remain a virgin, yet where although I once had strong beliefs to remain so until marriage. recent experience has taught me that men have become more open about marrying non-virgins. Still, it’s a huge risk I’m not ready to make.
Rouby al-Odairi, Kuwait, Kuwait
I lived in Heliopolis, Egypt till I was 30. I came from a fairly wealthy family of landowners. I attended an all-boy private school and one of the best colleges in Egypt. I was gay then (and still am). There was no shortage of opportunities to meet men, particularly along the beaches in Alexandria and Sinai. I first had sex when I was 15. Cairo was also full of men who were eager and willing, particularly among the military recruits. It was all under cover and keeping up appearances was the main thing but under the surface things were completely different.
Andy, California – USA
As in any society, there are people that will indulge in that which is forbidden. From an Islamic perspective I’m sure we are all well aware there is no excuse for pre-marital sex. Those of us who abide by the rules should take heart that we are still the majority and should not be led astray by the minority.
Tahir Mughal, London
In Iran, premarital sex has increased since the revolution and after the war. Nowadays it is very hard to find a girl or a boy over 18 that has had no sexual experiences, particularly in bigger cities. In Iran, young people get to know each other in shopping malls, private parties, streets while driving… and soon after they will have sex without being ashamed of it. It was very rare that young people could have premarital sex because of moral beliefs before the 1979 Islamic revolution but, today, despite drastic restrictions forced by the Islamic government, the number of people having premarital sex has risen.
I am a liberal Muslim who is against all the rules that are not fair towards women. I grew up in a society where it’s forbidden for females to have pre-marital sex with men, however, for the men it wasn’t an issue at all. A woman has to be a virgin when she marries the guy; on the other hand, men would sleep with girls and try to marry virgins. In most cases a woman had to get pregnant so the guy would marry her and stay with her. Unfortunately for my best friend, men learned that women were supposed to bleed on her first intercourse; however, in my friend’s case on her wedding night she didn’t bleed. Doctors told her it was because she is an athlete or because of her genes. She had to divorce her husband because he kept calling her prostitute.
In Islam, sex before marriage is a big no. So a no remains a no. Don’t they think of the risks of getting STDs by having more than one partner? I think that sex education, however taboo, is needed so as to stop the youths from having premarital sex.
The epidemic of premarital sex has societal repercussions and implications that will not only scar the current generation, but generations to follow. It has been proven from a sociological perspective that premarital sex leads to problems with intimacy, commitment, infidelity, and other relationship issues. As for “true” Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others who same similar views about premarital sex, this also means condemnation. As a result of lack of education and understanding for youth in eastern countries, premarital sex is increasing and will continue to increase. Secularisation can only add to this disease. Only through prayer and education can this ailment be treated.
Sameer, NC, USA
I met my husband now at university in the UK, we went out without having a sexual relationship as I would never feel right about it until we would be married, also in the back of my mind I knew if my parents found out they would probably disown me and I would feel as if I really let them down. I have a lot of respect for my family and their traditions and the way they have brought me up in a Western society but with Islamic traditions. In many ways I am glad that we didn’t have sex until after we were married, I am now 30 (4 years after knowing each other) and it has made our relationship trusting. The majority of Arab men will have several relationships before they get married, but when it comes to marriage they all want a virgin. That even applies to my husband!
Stef Zaghloul, Manchester Uk
In Kathmandu, we can see boys and girls getting along with each other pretty quick in an open way. Dating is not so uncommon in the urban areas, especially among the middle class educated boys and girls. However, our society isn’t still open that the parents can tolerate their child having secret affairs. Sex is by far still a taboo. The boys do pressure their partner for sex and as a result I have seen many of them breaking apart after such relationships.
Suraj Pandey, Kathmandu, Nepal
I’m an Egyptian-American 18 year old who visits Egypt regularly. I believe that premarital sex is definitely overblown in the media. I think it happens much less than is portrayed but, unfortunately, the reason for many people is just society or social taboo instead of religion. Here in Egypt the majority of people will say they are against premarital sex because of religion but unfortunately some young people will say because of society. The views of those people should change because premarital sex is a major sin in our religion and they should be more worried about God than society.
Sherif, Middletown, NJ, US
Although I live in Britain, as a Muslim I am able to relate to the views and opinions given by those living in Muslim countries. It is common knowledge that even in Britain young people from Muslim backgrounds enter into relationships (including sexual) at schools/ colleges/ universities etc. and in the majority of cases parents do not know what their son/ daughter is getting up to. Though we live in separate parts of the world we bring our cultures and values with us. I would say that it is a lot easier for young people in Britain to get away with pre-marital relationships (and sex) because it is very likely that the person you will marry will have been through similar experiences and won’t mind your past. I might add that I completely disagree with pre-marital relationships.
Maha Shaikh, London
It is true that sex before marriage is a taboo in Egypt, but I don’t think it is something we should be blamed for. Egypt is officially an Islamic country and Islam prevents this. In general, the Egyptian people are known to be religious and that stops them from accepting premarital sex. I see no mistake here.
Mohamed A Gaafar, Cairo, Egypt
When I was at university, I had a secret relationship on campus and when it was time to go home our relationship would stop at the door of the campus. If I saw my boyfriend while shopping with my mother I would pretend we did not know each other. We did go out near the beach and forest but all the time in his car with tinted windows. We did not have sexual relations during our relationship of two years because I knew he would no longer respect me and probably dump me if I agreed to it. I had another relationship for one year while in London doing a course and I still kept my virginity and my boyfriend respected my wish and we got married .
Farida ,Oran, Algeria
I think whether or not to keep your virginity should be a personal issue. In this part of the world, virginity was something religious, now it is more of a cultural thing than a religious issue. It’s is so important for a girl to keep her virginity but this is not true for men – in fact the more experienced a man is the better he is. Although my country is a bit more open than other Arab countries we still hear about stories like honour killing because they said the bride wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night even though she really was.
Lina, Beirut, Lebanon
In our country, boys and girls get to know each other at school or at common points of gathering and the relationship doesn’t go much further than kissing or holding hands. Only the very rich or very poor can afford private rooms or face the stain on their reputations in a society that values virginity as a strong indicator of a lifetime commitment to a partner.
Sanlaj Farfem, Karachi, Pakistan
It’s easy here for me. I have my own secret apartment.I go to a mall and very quickly find a girl that is ready for fun (so to say). Because they are covered, all the flirting is concentrated on the eyes – and that makes it very intense. So I will walk passed her two or three times, then if she is getting into the game, I will slip her my mobile number, if she catches it, most likely she will SMS me, then we arrange to meet at my apartment, it’s secret, very risky but a lot of fun. You must know what you are doing.
Nasser Mohammed, Doha, Qatar
Even though we live in an Islamic country, having pre-marital sex is quite common between young people my age (19 years old). I am a university student and all my friends have sex with their girl friends. Our intimacy is in secret and hidden from every body. Hymen reconstruction surgery is quite common between young girls prior to marriage here as well.
Mehdi, Tehran, Iran
In Cairo, young people from poor areas may have more freedom to have pre-marriage sex than those constrained by traditions and strict value systems adopted by middle class families who want to see their daughters married ( usually to a young man from the same strata) sooner than later. The elite have different lifestyles; they can be more tolerant to pre-marital sex , however, not in all cases. I am a middle class myself and I used to know a girl from the same college. For her, holding hands was a taboo. We did not have full relations, of course although it was something I really wished for. Religion makes things more complicated and society is still not tolerant towards dating, let alone sex.
Gamal, Cairo, Egypt
My family are well aware of my relationship with my girlfriend and have been so since university; her parents turn a blind eye and ‘trust’ her not to do anything ‘wrong’. However, if they knew we were in a sexual relationship, I fear what would happen to her. Things are changing for those born after post-1980 and the youth are changing slowly but the older generations will never accept.
FJ, Amman, Jordan
The issue of women’s virginity in the Middle East is diverse and hypocritical. Whereas most people insist its a religious matter you find that most families know that their sons are indulged in sexual relationships and do not mind it (the father might suggest to his son to use a condom to prevent pregnancy!). However, daughters are not even allowed to have boyfriends and we all know what honour killing is all about.
Sus, Amman, Jordan
In Morocco, sexual relations before marriage are normal. Unlike other Arab countries, Morocco is very open about sex and relationships before, during and after marriage. Myself I have an open relationship with my boyfriend, who happens to be an American, and there is no problem about that.
Asmaa, Casablanca, Morocco
It is totally forbidden in Islam. If you are a Muslim then you hve to follow the rules and regulations – if not you know the result. You can have a good life with your partner after marriage then, why spoil it with deeds before? It is better to be away from it.
It is a good sign that these things are being addressed rather than ignored. While I personally do not promote pre-marital sex, it is obvious that young people will face these obstacles in every society so a good “sex-education” program is needed.
Egyptian men have different ways to evaluate things. When an Egyptian man finds a girl that he wants to have sex with, he starts to tell her that he has an open mind, that he does not care about tradition at all. If she agrees after he has sex with her and this girl loses her virginity, he says the girl is easy one and a bad woman. If that girl refused, the man would keep pushing her towards intimacy – when he becomes sure she will refuse to sleep with him that means she is a good girl. Then he will say “OK, I will think about marrying you, I am a man who respects our traditions.”
Mirage, Cairo, Egypt
I have a boyfriend and we’ve been together for three years. We want to get married but my boyfriend is still in college and he has to have a job in order for my father to accept. We haven’t had actual sex but we have a very intimate relationship. I’d never have sex because I’d feel too guilty and so would he. My traditions stop me. Since we both study abroad, we practically live together although each one of us has their own apartment. I’m worried that we’ll never get married because he’s from an Arab country that is poorer than mine and women can’t pass their citizenship to their husband or children. But I think my parents won’t mind since my mother has made it clear that she isn’t against inter-Arab marriages. I think my mother’s extended family would be disappointed with my choice, though.
In the Christian Egyptian community – which I come from – usually young men and women who are committed to their Christian belief do not have premarital sex, not only because it is against our culture but also because it is against our belief. Unfortunately, we are a minority and the openness about sex in our community is growing rapidly!
Ashraf, Cairo, Egypt
In Afghanistan premarital sex is very rare. In Kabul, where residents are more liberal and more educated, premarital sex is rare, but it does happen. The reason for this is only our religion, Islam, which prohibits us from having any sexual relations, and our tradition also forbids any girl to have a boyfriend or a boy to have a girlfriend. Only in major cities are there some young boys and girls who make friendships which end with marriage.
Mohammad Nabi, Kabul, Afghanistan
In UAE, traditionally the local society is against dating, however men and women still manage to sneak out to meet. Their first contact would be through random phone calls, one would call a random number and start conversations with complete strangers, if they like each other they take it forward and meet secretly. Many men give their mobile numbers in shopping malls (they shout it loud or hand it in a paper to the girls they like). Of course, men and women could also meet in other situations such as at work. Dating is not done openly as parents are not supposed to find out. Obviously sex is not allowed before marriage, but the number of pre-marital sexual relationships is increasing. Sex is also easily available here with the existence of prostitution. Men want sexual relationships but end up making sure they only marry a virgin.
Fatema Abdulla, Dubai, United Arab Emirates