An Egyptian actress and TV personality has ignited a nationwide controversy for suggesting that Egyptian men would benefit from watching more pornography. In fact, she's facing jail time. Entissar, as she is known, told a TV audience earlier this month that "These films are useful for men, especially those who have no pre-marriage sex experience." But beyond what men might be able to learn about sex from such films, Entissar thinks that, "Everyone should be free in watching porn films if they want."Of course, not everyone in Egypt has embraced her suggestion. "This is a call for debauchery and depravity," according to one unhappy cleric quoted in the press. "I can't believe this could happen." A group called "Who Loves Egypt?" was unhappy enough with Entissar, best-known for her comic roles on TV serials, to take her court for "inciting debauchery." The charge carries a one-year prison term.
On one level, Entissar's comments are part of a debate over Egyptians' access to Internet porn sites, which the Mubarak government was supposed to have blocked as "venomous and vile" back in 2009, but which remain available because neither Mubarak's regime, nor any of the regimes since, not even Mohamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, has budgeted the necessary funds. The result, as the Cairo Post puts it in its appealing near-English, is that, "The most populous Arab state is one of the most countries that restrict explicit content, but is also reportedly one of the most that consumes online porn." In May, a court once again ordered the state to restrict access to porn sites, so the issue remains topical in TV terms.
On another level, however, Entissar's remarks address the depressingly ever-topical issue of sexual repression in the region. At least one reaction to Entissar's remarks made the connection directly. "Is it OK to talk about porn films so easily and on TV?" asked one Karam Abdul Alleem, helpfully identified as "a father of four children." "Do you expect then sexual harassment to disappear?" Mr. Alleem thought that watching porn, and maybe even talking about watching porn, encourages harassment. But that wasn't Entissar's theory at all. She suggested that men "can cool down by watching porn films."
Some context. In a conservative society like Egypt's, everyone—men and women, Muslims and Copts—is expected to remain a virgin until marriage, and the powerful shame factor in the culture helps police the expectation. But in an economy like Egypt's, most men cannot afford to marry and raise a family (in Egypt, often a big family) until they are in their late 20s. The resulting frustration supposedly compounds the country's numerous social tensions, especially that of sexual harassment, which in Egypt seems ubiquitous.
Westerners know something about the harassment issue in Egypt through the widely reported assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan in 2011 in Tahrir Square. But Egyptian women have to deal with the problem all the time. A UN report in 2013 concluded that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women had been sexually harassed. Over 96 percent of the women in the study reported that they had physically harassed. There are reports of women having to take refuge from groups of men who then wait, sometimes for hours, until their prey emerges. This problem has been the subject of much discussion among Egyptians; there are even a couple of pop music videos dramatizing incidents of harassment and condemning both the perpetrators and an indifferent society at large. (Abo's "I won't blame the harasser" uses footage of harassment in Tahrir Square; "Who is Responsible," by rapper Zap Tharwat and Menna Hussein, a more commercial production, has been watched over 1,600,000 times on YouTube.)
Entissar is nominating pornography less as an antidote to harassment and predation, and more as an outlet for Egyptian frustration. A way to avoid, as she put it, "falling into a sin prohibited by religion."
But here's a question: Did Entissar mean what she said? In the course of her controversial remarks, Entissar claimed not only that she's watched porn films and benefitted from doing so, but that she actually liked their plots. That alone might raise doubts about how many she has sat through. But there's a more serious reason to wonder.
Entissar has a history of being provocative on the TV show she co-hosts with two other women. (It's called "Nafsana," or, "Our Souls.") The controversy now surrounding her also includes remarks she made on another episode urging Egyptian women not to be ashamed of their busts, not to hide them behind bags they are carrying, or to fold their arms across their chests, or to stoop their shoulders. Be proud of your womanliness, she urged her audience.
But her remarks on pornography and breasts might be less examples of brave outspokenness in the face of a conservative and censorious society than they are an attempt to titillate an audience precisely because it is conservative, and to gain audience share cynically through controversy. Who says so? Entissar strongly suggested it in an interview with the newspaper, Al-Ahram Gate, after legal action had been taken against her.
"It did not occur to the civil plaintiffs that the show lies in an acting framework," she told the paper, "that what I said in the episode may not express my opinion, that each presenter represents a specific segment of women in the Egyptian society, and that what we say may very well be attributed to the editing team."
So "Our Souls" might actually be "Our Roles," a kind of drama staged for women in the form of a talk show, with the three co-hosts playing parts cast by producers who want representative voices of their varied Cairene viewership. When Entissar offers a point of view, she might be delivering a staged monologue that may or may not reflect her opinions at all. And when she goes on about pornography or breasts or whatever, it's because she's cast as the outspoken liberal Cairene, and the producers told her to talk about something sexy to titillate the viewers.
That may not sound especially shocking to Western viewers, but for Egypt, such titillation is a kind of soft core on its own terms. That's certainly how Entissar's critics see it. But more interestingly, that seems to be how Entissar's producers see it, too, based on her comments to Al-Ahram Gate.
Entissar's court date is set for November 10 in Nasr City Misdemeanor Court.