Do you know whether or not you are a prostitute? asks a sign in Shanghai I wrote about last year. Like that piece, the one below mulls over the slippery meanings ascribed to women’s behaviour in regard to sex, whether any money is involved or not. This time the setting is urban, middle-class Egypt. Excerpts highlight the anthropologist’s attempts to pin down what her companions mean when they call a woman a prostitute, in part revolving around her studies of Gulf tourists visiting Egypt. What’s being discussed is sometimes known as whore stigma, according to which certain behaviours signify dirty status for women who are certainly not sex professionals.
L.L. Wynn, 24 June 2008, American Sexuality
It was 2000 and I was at a dinner party in Cairo. I was sitting with Malak, a belly dancer, and we were eyeing up a young woman who had large oval eyes thickly lined with black kohl and a wide mouth painted salmon.. . . Malak looked her up and down skeptically, and then she said to me in a low voice, “She’s a prostitute. Look, obviously that vulgar man thinks so too, because he wouldn’t dare put his hands all over her like that unless he was sure she was a prostitute.”
. . . It took me a long time to understand what Egyptians meant when they said “prostitute” . . . But it wasn’t until I could finally shed my own cultural preconceptions about prostitution fundamentally being tied up with money and sex that I finally understood what my Egyptian friends meant. . .
. . . they imagined that Saudis came to Egypt to drink, visit prostitutes, and do everything else that was forbidden back in Saudi Arabia. . . . If I said that I was going to such-and-such a nightclub to observe, and that nightclub was known to be a hangout for Gulf Arabs in the summer, my friends would all try to dissuade me: “Don’t go there, men will harass you. They’ll think you’re a prostitute.” . . .
. . . when suddenly he said to me, “Look, Lisa, a case study.” With the fork he pointed in the direction of two women with short hair who were sitting at a table in the corner. “You really think they’re prostitutes?” Case study had become our code word for a prostitute because of my academic interest in the subject. Lina looked over and agreed with Ayman. “Definitely case studies.”
“I just don’t see it,” . . . Ayman just shrugged, but Lina made an attempt. “It’s a lot of things—they way they look, the way they dress, their makeup, their attitude, the expressions on their face, their body language . . .”
. . . you don’t look like a prostitute. First of all, you’re always with the same people, in a mixed group of men and women. The worst they might think is that you’re the girlfriend of one of the guys in the group, but we don’t sit close together or touch, so they probably wouldn’t even think that. Second of all, your makeup isn’t like those women. They’re wearing thick black kohl all around their eyes, top and bottom. Third of all, your clothes are more decent—you cover up more than they do.” “Okay, maybe tonight I’m covered up, but sometimes I show more skin.”
. . .” Okay, look, I found one thing that I can point out about those women. You see that one that’s wearing the short sleeveless dress? Look, you can see her bra underneath the arm-holes. And the hem keeps turning up and showing her slip. Put the two things together and you can see that they aren’t used to dressing up and looking comfortable in elegant clothes.”
. . . “You see that woman with the long wavy black hair sitting at the end of the bar?” The one wearing the skirt with the long slit up to her thigh?” “Right. This woman is well known for being very wealthy and loose. Her father died and she inherited a lot of money and she has her own apartment and she has sexual relationships with men just for pleasure. She’s a prostitute.. . . it’s obvious by the fact that she has her own apartment. A respectable woman does not live alone. . . ”
. . . Eventually I realized that the reason I was struggling to understand the concept of a prostitute had everything to do with my own preconceptions about sex and money. I thought of prostitutes as women who had sex for money. But as I reflected on my friends’ relationships and the role that money played in them, I remembered that all of my Egyptian female friends took money from the men they were dating or married to. It didn’t matter whether they were rich or poor, or even whether the men could afford it. No matter what, their boyfriends, fiancés, or husbands paid for evenings out, for doctor visits, and often for luxury items such as jewelry and designer sunglasses. When they married, men paid women a large bride price, a sum of money up to $10,000 that was hers to spend as she liked. Married men usually gave their wives stipends, even if the wives had their own jobs.
In short, it was not the injection of money into a sexual relationship that defined it as prostitution. . . . Nor was “prostitution” even necessarily about sex, since a woman could be labeled a prostitute when there was no proof that she was sexually active at all. For example, sometimes Zeid and Lina would have disputes over whether a particular friend of Lina’s was a “prostitute” or not. Zeid, for example, claimed that one of Lina’s childhood friends was a prostitute because she drove around alone after midnight. . .
Note: language issues are covered in the article, such as the use of the English word prostitute to distinguish certain meanings from those carried by Arabic words.