I often tell my students that there is not a single question in life that cannot be asked or debated, then accepted or discarded by the human mind. I learned that many years ago as a student at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Today, the weekly question at the forum of The Washington Post is about prostitution and whether it should be legalized. I am asked to speak my point of view on Syria. By no means do I support the act of prostitution, nor do I think, however, that it can be eliminated. It is the oldest surviving “profession” in the world and outlawing it will only make it flourish in the Arab underground.
For years, many in the Arab World have been sexually deprived. This is because of social restrictions, seclusion, bad education, poverty, etc… Some would argue that Islam is the reason for sexual deprivation, but I stand against such an argument. True, Islam limits interaction between sexes and calls for modesty in dress and conduct, but so does Christianity and Judaism. The other factors -- mainly seclusion, lack of education education, and poverty -- lead to a permanent psychological disorder. In many cases, people become obsessed with sex in its most primitive form.
Economic factors are very important: women enter the profession to make money because of poverty while men invest in it because they are unable to marry or satisfy their desires in a formal, legal manner. Many men, who live in societies divided along gender lines in the Arab World, start viewing women -- all women -- as nothing but sexual objects. Meanwhile, pornographic movies abound. Internet and satellite TV provide images that trigger the imagination and desires of sexually deprived men. No authority -- no matter how strict or Puritanical -- can control or curb such underground subculture.
Repressing these trends (such as the case in some Islamic countries) is not only unsuccessful, but actually fuels more dangerous sexual deviations. When men become obsessed with sexual desires, and have no outlet for these urges, they start doing strange things, such as viewing all women in a derogatory fashion. They can neither work or think properly, affecting overall production in society.
One case that comes to mind is a taxi driver in Damascus who I rode with many years ago as a young child. Every single unveiled woman he saw on the street, he would describe as a prostitute. The man was sick -- very sick -- but there are many others like him throughout the Arab World. The problem is that with the absence of proper gender interaction, such a mentality will not only flourish but will also distort the balance of normal and healthy sexual activity.
I was always impressed with how open-minded and progressive Syrian leaders were in the early years of the 20th century, when prostitution was in fact legal. Most of these men, pious men who had been educated at proper Islamic schools in Ottoman Syria, prayed, fasted, and observed the pillars of Islam. Nevertheless, they saw the need to legalize a profession that, with or without their consent, would happen anyways in Syria. Rather than it happening in private, behind closed doors, they reasoned that it should be under the watchful eye of the state.
Prostitution was legalized and professionalized under the Ottoman Empire. Back then there was fear in Damascus that the wandering soldiers would attack or rape young Syrians. That is why affordable prostitution centers were created for them in the Syrian capital, as a form of maintaining public security. This system was maintained when the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918. The destruction of World War I, along with the poverty imposed on the Syrians, however, made many young women turn to prostitution for a living and the years 1914-1918 are considered the worst in the past 100-years of Syrian history. When the French came to Syria in 1920, they professionalized prostitution in major urban cities of Syria. Prostitution centers were registered in government records, and guarded by armed men from the colonial troops of France, mostly, from the Senegal. Any woman found to be engaged in illegal sexual conduct for more than three times would be arrested and sent to the prostitution center. There she would become an “official” employee. She would pay taxes to the central government, and receive check-ups twice a week at the Ministry of Health.
As early as 1922, there were 271 prostitutes registered officially in Syria. The Syrians knew that frequenting these places was wrong, both morally and socially, and during the early years of the Mandate, the regular customers were often foreigners and Frenchmen. By the 1930s, the practice had become common to Syrian men as well. In 1953, the first serious attempt at combating the trend was undertaken by President Adib al-Shishakli, who passed strict laws to prevent prostitutes from entering Syria. In 1957, a group of religious men approached President Shukri al-Quwatli and Nazim al-Qudsi, the speaker of Parliament, asking them to close down cabarets, nightclubs, and all illegal venues for prostitutes. Both men were religious but the Syrian President replied: “If I create heaven for you on earth, what do we leave for the God Almighty?” The government’s job was not to interfere in the daily life of Syrian citizens, he added, but rather, try to keep a watchful eye on it. The government’s job, he added, was to collect taxes and in turn, use them to provide a safer and better living for average Syrians. Punishment for immoral action—and reward for piousness—would be given by God in Heaven.
As a result, the trend continued to flourish in Syria and was outlawed—among other things—by President Gamal Abdul-Nasser of Egypt in 1959 during the years of the United Arab Republic (UAR). The law outlawing prostitution was decree # 10. Since then, rather than diminish, the industry has thrived in the black markets of Syria and distorted the mentality of many promising young Syrians, preventing them from channeling their energy in the right and constructive manner. Rather, it created an unnecessary and consuming tension that has damaged their psychology.
This article, far from being a call to promiscuity, or loose sexual mores, is an attempt to acknowledge the existence of a problem created (and sustained) by the rigidity of existing traditions and moral standards, and to address a possible, logical, and human solution to it. Moral prudes and Islamists might argue against what I just wrote, but it is like trying to brush a problem under the rug instead of exposing it in a civilized manner, with the intention of resolving and humanizing it. Legalizing prostitution will certainly not lessen it, but rather, only make it controllable.
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