As with most sexual behavior in Egypt, there are, as yet, few hard facts on masturbation in the population-at-large. But smaller studies are starting to give glimpse of what’s going on in particular communities. In a 2009 study of Egyptian youth, aged 15-24, in regions north and south of Cairo, for example, half the men questioned said they had masturbated at some point, in part to let off a head of sexual steam built up by watching TV, and to avoid engaging in premarital sex; the other half who said they never masturbated attributed their abstinence to fear of physical harm, religious aversion, or simple ignorance of how to go about it.
In surveys from elsewhere in the region, men, at least, are willing enough to admit to this particular secret; in a 2006 study of over 300 university students in the south of Tunisia, for example, over three-quarters of men reported masturbating.. More than 70% of those surveyed thought it was harmful to their health and four-fifths felt guilty about the practice.
None of the women in the Egyptian study admitted to masturbation, but saying is one thing, doing quite another. A 2009 survey of more than 200 married Egyptian and Jordanian women living in Qatar found that just over 10% of the Egyptians, and double the percentage of Jordanian women, had masturbated before marriage; while the practice tapered off considerably for the Egyptians after marriage, the Jordanian women pressed on. More than 70% of all the women in the study disapproved of their husbands doing the same.
The permissibility of masturbation is something that religious scholars have been grappling with for over a millennia. The pros and cons were laid out by Ahmad Ibn Muhammad Ibn ‘Ali, also known as Ibn Falita, in his 14th century book, Rushd al-Labib ila Mu‘asharat al-Habib, or The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Coition. Ibn Falita, a poet and statesman, wrote his good sex guide with the express permission of the sultan of Yemen. Having researched the existing literature, Ibn Falita decided to tell it as it is. While he covered most of the standard subjects—sexual positions, heating up and cooling down the libido, lesbianism, homosexuality, procurement—there were a few old chestnuts he decided to leave out, for example, how to judge a woman’s potential in bed from her facial features, “since, after trial and examination, I found it untrue”. Of greater interest to Ibn Falita were the subjects other writers skipped: “I read through many sex books and I found their authors failed to treat particular subjects which they omitted either of their own accord or against their will. Since I believe in the importance of these missing subjects, I thought of writing the present book to include them.”
Among them was masturbation. As Ibn Falita explained, some men prefer it to sexual intercourse, although the majority of fuqaha’ disapprove of it. He quoted a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, “On the Day of Judgment, a masturbator will be brought back to life with his hand pregnant”, though like most hadiths related to masturbation, this one is of dubious provenance. But Ibn Falita did point out the views of dissenting fuqaha’, and that some people considered masturbation cleaner than intercourse, and less trouble than either pederasty or unwanted children. Even women do it, Ibn Falita added, when men are not available or not sufficiently satisfying; some also use a dildo “which they do not want to declare, because they feel ashamed to do so”. As a poet, Ibn Falita supplemented his discussion with a selection of verse:
When young men turned to sodomy
And women to lesbianism,
I lay in my bed alone.
When my penis cried for coition
And looked like a muezzin
Searching for the moon in the sky,
I moistened my palm with saliva
And began to masturbate with indifference.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and this sort of balanced presentation is rare. The vast majority of websites, articles and TV shows on masturbation in the Arab region depict it as a weakness to be stamped out. The consequences of not getting a grip, so to speak, include madness, blindness, impotence and God’s wrath thrown into the bargain. The classical regimen involves continuous prayer, fasting, exercise, casting off “deviant” friends, steering clear of sexually-arousing material, ignoring the opposite sex and for women in particular, toning down their dress. Marwa Rakha, an online agony aunt for young Egyptians, however, cuts her worried correspondents a little slack however, provided they don’t go overboard. “About the subject of masturbation that you have been practicing since childhood: it’s natural in all the children of the world,” she advised one female reader. “Look, you are not an apostate for doing this. And you haven’t done something which hasn’t been done before. But anything which goes beyond its limit [to excess] turns against itself. And that’s the problem.”