The Middle East’s Morality Police

At the end of June, Egypt’s notoriously backlogged criminal justice system found time to try and convict Reda al-Fouly on charges of “inciting debauchery.” Less than a month later, two other women were jailed pending investigation on the same charge. They were arrested after complaints filed by lawyers acting privately accused them of outraging public decency.

All three women are belly dancers whose supposed crime was to perform in “immoral videos” available on YouTube. To be precise, the women danced in costumes that revealed a lot of leg and cleavage, in videos for which you had to actively search. But in Egypt, and much of the Middle East, “inciting debauchery” is like violating national security. It is a catchall flexible enough to use against a variety of moral opponents and is mobilized to unite people — regardless of politics — in righteous indignation.

Recent cases in Egypt, Sudan and Morocco are a reminder that women and gay men are often a target. Prosecuting such “moral crimes” enables conservative regimes and their societies to congratulate themselves on their ability to control women.

The day after Ms. Fouly was sentenced to a year in prison (later reduced to six months), Egypt’s top prosecutor was assassinated by a car bomb. Then, in July, jihadist insurgents in the northern Sinai region staged an audacious series of attacks on security forces. This week, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi issued a new counterterrorism law that includes a controversial measure prohibiting journalists from reporting anything about the militants’ attacks that deviates from the official line.

Given this backdrop of a security crisis, when Egypt’s military-backed regime and its opponents of armed militants are locked in a deadly struggle, involving arbitrary arrests and sham trials, bombings and assassinations, YouTube videos of belly dancers are hardly what comes to mind as a prime example of dangerous “incitement.” But instead of throwing out the cases against the dancers as an absurd waste of time and money, the courts pursued them.

To be sure, Egypt is not the only majority-Muslim country in the region obsessed with policing women’s bodies. In neighboring Sudan in June, 10 students — women between the ages of 17 and 23 — were charged with “indecent dress” after being arrested outside their church in Khartoum. The women, who were from the civil-war-torn Nuba Mountains region of the country, were all wearing long-sleeved shirts and either skirts or trousers — customary forms of dress for Christians in their native South Kordofan. If convicted, they could be sentenced to 40 lashes.

Article 152 of Sudan’s criminal code allows Sudan’s “morality police” to punish women for going unveiled or even for wearing trousers. Such laws are socially divisive: Sudanese women from affluent or politically connected backgrounds can often escape flogging and just pay a fine. Less advantaged women bear the brunt.

Morocco, a monarchy with an elected Islamist government, has seesawed between relatively progressive social positions and strict adherence to morality provisions in its penal code — at times, with an apparent political motivation. In April, for example, Hicham Mansouri, an activist with an organization that supports investigative journalism, received a 10-month prison sentence for adultery. (The woman reported to be his partner, who told the court she was separated from her husband, received a similar sentence.) Mr. Mansouri’s supporters said that the arrests were a retaliation for their investigation of state surveillance.

But Morocco has also provided a refreshing antidote to the perils of morality laws. In July, two Moroccan women were acquitted of charges of gross indecency for wearing skirts that were said to be too flimsy and skintight. They were arrested in Agadir after shopkeepers, who had heckled and harassed the women, reported them to the police. Under Moroccan law, an offense involving “public obscenity” carries a penalty of up to two years in prison.

The charges incited a national outcry. Hundreds of lawyers offered to defend the women, more than 27,000 Moroccans signed a petition to free the women and thousands more held rallies in Agadir and in Casablanca.

At a time when murderous thugs behead, rape and sexually enslave in the name of their self-declared “Islamic State,” you would think that hemline heights and décolletage would rank lower on the Middle East’s list of moral outrages.

It is a mistake, though, to think that only Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood obsess over morality. Nominally secular regimes will often outdo religious conservatives in the “decency” contest. According to rights groups, the current regime in Egypt has carried out the harshest crackdown against the gay community since the Mubarak era — far worse than anything that occurred under President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood during his year in office.

The lesson is that “respectability politics” has the power to unite military regimes and religious zealots alike.

We will truly be free only when morality and decency no longer depend on policing the length of a woman’s skirt, criminalizing suggestive videos or trapping vulnerable groups with the catchall of debauchery accusations. What is more indecent: torture, beheadings, car bombs and mass incarceration — or a glimpse of a woman’s skin?

The reality is that we are all in chains so long as we punish those whom society judges “debauched” and “deviant.” It is time to rid the Middle East’s penal codes of these morality laws that serve only the hypocrites and misogynists.

Mona Eltahawy is the author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution and a contributing opinion writer.

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