Unveiling The Shame Of The “Whore” In Arab Culture


By Farida D.

When I was in high school, each year a “List of Whores” would secretly circulate in the locker rooms. The list included names of girls in our school and beyond, dubbed as whores for violations like dressing revealing, talking to boys, or having sex. The originator of the list remained anonymous. Each year the list grew longer as it would be updated- never altered- once you make it on the “List of Whores” there is nothing you can do to revoke your “whoreness”. Your reputation would be “ruined” for life.

Many of our teachers would demonstrate the idea of a woman’s reputation, by holding up a crisp new piece of white paper saying “this is a woman’s reputation”- then they would scrunch the paper and try to spread it out smoothly again, adding “once you ruin your reputation, no matter how hard you try, it can’t go back the way it was” pointing at the unruly paper creases. Chewing gum was also used as another example to demonstrate the same idea- once you chew it, it can’t be ‘unchewed’. Thus, the anonymous creator of the “List of Whores” applied the same logic- girls who made it on the list could never revoke their whoredom. Teachers didn’t know about the list – we hid it from them because if we exposed it we would expose our “whoreness” as well and get into more trouble. The list worked as both a punishment and a silencing strategy used against girls who dared to disrupt the modesty script.

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The term whore (often used interchangeably with slut and bitch in Arab cultures) means different things in different cultures and contexts- but all of them share one thing in common; to refer to a woman’s sexual bodily autonomy as some sort of degradation.

In Arab culture, the ideal woman (by ideal I mean ideally desirable from the patriarchal perspective) is the pious modest virgin, who remains invisible because her body always belongs to a man (a father or a husband). She hides her body in a hijab all her life, and saves her hymen for her husband. The whore is the antithesis of all that. She is not invisible. She doesn’t hide her body for anyone- her body is hers, to dress however she wants. She doesn’t save her hymen for her husband- her vagina is hers to do as she pleases. The whore, essentially, is a woman unowned by a man, she is owned by herself. Men despise the whore, because they cannot control her. So instead, they punish, shame, and label her; a whore is the worst thing a woman can be.

In recent news, a young Saudi woman fled her home country to escape abuse from her family. Because she wanted to own her body (dress however she wants, cut her hair however she wants, among other things), she was labelled as a whore all over social media.

One of the loudest voices to help the young Saudi in her flight to freedom was Mona Eltahawy, an award-winning columnist and international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues and global feminism.  Because she advocates for Arab women’s right to control their own bodies – she was labelled a whore. Furthermore, because she helped the young Saudi woman in her escape- she was dubbed a “porn activist” by Arab news outlets. 

The message is clear; any woman who wants to own her own body is a “whore” in Arab culture. 

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Many Arab men are obsessed with virginity. Therefore, they use the term “whore” as an insult towards any woman who angers them, thinking that if they render her immodest they make her unlovable to other men, thus invalidated. 

This insult only works, though, if a woman seeks male validation and if she has internalized the misogynistic perspective of the desirable/undesirable Arab woman (many of us have, but if we practice reflection we can easily unlearn this). 

If you realize though, that when those men call you a whore, what they are essentially saying is “you are a woman I failed to control”- the label ‘whore’ isn’t an insult anymore; rather it becomes a badge of victory!


Authors note: This article is dedicated to my dearest feminist giant Mona Eltahawy. Her fearless voice represents the pinnacle of the modern Arab woman’s liberation. Her upcoming book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is due Sept 17, 2019, and can be pre-ordered here.

Farida D. is a gender researcher, and has been studying Arab women’s everyday oppressions for over a decade. Through the process, she broke up with the hijab and set all of her high heels on fire. Her memoir, “Rants of a Rebel Arab Feminist”, is now on sale on all Amazon websites. Click here to purchase the book.

5 Comments

  1. All your desire can be fulfilled by your husband too. If you want other’s company then really you are whore.
    Crime rate in Arab is lowest in comparisan with whole other countries in the world only because of there’s laws and restrictions.
    Modesty is the only priceless asset of women.
    What is wrong with this?; if a woman is saved and kept sacred for his husband.
    This is best gift for a man.

    • You missed the point. The label “whore” is used as a control mechanism in Arab culture- to stigmatize women who want to make their own choices when it comes to their own bodies. It is a way of ensuring women give up the management of their bodies to men. A woman has the right to do with her body whatever she desires. It is not your place to tell another woman to save herself for her husband or to enjoy others. If you call a woman a whore, just because she chooses to “own her body”, the problem is you not her. A woman is not a “gift” or an object to be given to another person. She is a human being.

      • Oh, I got that point. Really parameters to make anyone realise that he is crossing limit,should be ethical and somewhat of lower degree not so harsh and sarcastical.
        But as you said women’s body is theirs own asset and they can use or control it as they desire to, I firmly don’t agree with this point and it is somewhat illogical too.
        Definitely you should have rights to lead life happily
        as far as possible unless affect others. You would have to keep in mind the rational interests of others also. You have no right to adversely affect the life of others using your assets.
        If I have sword it doesn’t mean I would walk on road by revolving it.
        Straightforwardly I say that sexual desires invade me too, but it doesn’t mean;for the sake of own sexual desire I would blame shariah law or any restrictions which prohibits to do so.
        Madness and overwhelming to fulfill own desires irrespective of nature of desires lead people towards transgression of laws or boundings.
        External forces play quintessential role like ill concept of modernisation or say westernisation.
        best defination of modernisation can be as ” Reciprocal of true Islamic ways of living life” .
        I informally request you that please be a representative of Bibi Fatima(r.a.a)
        and I will try and still struggling to bring sunnah in my life(make dua plzz) instead of luring or tempting.Joles apart, It is toughest to lead life within the limit of shariah law …but we know very well that life is very short and contingent it will pass soon.
        Moreover,once the time will come and the asset you are talking about will be depreciated mercilessly. So utilize it in such a manner that you could enjoy fruits instead.
        Please think infinite before criticizing or posting anything public as you may be giving opportunity to conspirators, foes of Islam or islamophobias to bounce the prestige of Islam.
        I am very lucky that I am a muslim(yet to become in true sense) , a priceless gifts from Allah(s.w.t).

        • You do not agree that a woman should have agency over her body, and I do not agree that a woman who controls her own body is harmful to others. Also, I do not refer to any religious ideologies in the article. I do not believe we are speaking on the same wave length here- you are free to your beliefs as I am to my own. Empowerment means different things to different people. This article is intended to empower women who are shamed for practicing sexual agency.

  2. But at the same time I would also like to convey that man should also follow modesty and should be pure and sacred equivalent to as desired by men.
    Moreover, they should also be given rights to enjoy nectar of life within the boundary of modesty and shariah laws.

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