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Sex and Lies by Leïla Slimani review – exploring secret lives | Books


Leïla Slimani came to the attention of English-speaking readers with Lullaby, a novel about a nanny who kills her charges; it became a global bestseller and is now a film. But her first novel was Adèle, at the centre of which is a woman chasing empty, violent sex with men not including her husband. It was translated into English last year to mixed reviews: readers found it flat, joyless; even those who liked it thought it uncomfortable, while some French journalists expressed surprise that a Moroccan-born woman would write such a book. The nonfiction work Sex and Lies both calls out the latter’s soft-focus orientalist prejudices and makes clear why their surprise is misplaced.

In Morocco, where Slimani grew up, the penal code lays down imprisonment of up to a year for anyone engaging in sex before marriage, up to two years for adultery, and up to three for homosexual acts. Abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, severe embryo deformity or incest. A new family code allows registration of children born out of wedlock – but if paternity is denied, the name must be prefixed by “abd”: “servant, slave, subordinate”. Slimani cites research that estimates 24 babies are abandoned and nearly 600 secret abortions are carried out daily. She was lucky, she writes, to grow up middle-class in Rabat, one of three sisters born to parents who believed in equality but could not entirely protect them from a society which, as Slimani puts it, experiences women’s intellectual and physical freedom as “violation”, where “I felt guilty before I had even sinned” – a society that is, as a result, obsessed by sex.





a view over the Kasbah to Tangier, Morocco.



Slimani’s novel
Adèle was read differently in Morocco … a view over the Kasbah to Tangier. Photograph: Neil Farrin/Getty Images/Robert Harding World Imagery

Adèle was read differently there. During her two-week book tour Slimani was approached by women who wanted to confide their “sexual suffering, frustration and alienation”. Sex and Lies is a response to this response – verbatim accounts of what the women said, some under real names, others not, interspersed with testimony from Moroccan experts and commentary from Slimani herself. She hears from middle-class divorcees and female doctors; from women who had secret sex lives but now, wanting children and stability, are considering hymen replacement; from a sex worker and a young gay woman; from her traditional-seeming housekeeper; from bright women who nevertheless took decades to realise that what they were experiencing “isn’t right”. And, fascinatingly, from a female religious scholar who combs the Qur’an and finds it doesn’t mention virginity and is addressed to all human beings, regardless of gender; that it allows for female agency and for equality.

Other interpretations have, however, produced a system that, as a lawyer tells Slimani, “turns us all into outlaws”. Its immediate effect is a deep vulnerability: to the whims of men raised to behave like demigods and, in a country without sex education, to STDs and unplanned pregnancies; and to the arbitrary reach of the law, which falls disproportionately on those who cannot bribe authorities to look the other way. The law also falls disporportionately on those for whom prostitution, sometimes paid for in vegetables, is the only way of making a living; on the poor and disenfranchised; and especially on girls whose unperforated hymen is their “only capital”. The law, in the case of homosexuality, is word for word the same as French penal laws repealed in France in 1982 – ie, not exactly indigenous.

Slimani is outraged by all of it but especially by the thoroughgoing hypocrisy, by the public moralising everyone knows is underpinned by the hadith: “If you fall into temptation do it discreetly.” She is especially interesting on the pressure this sanctioned hypocrisy is under, when educated girls are postponing marriage well beyond the onset of puberty, and both sexes can access social media and porn. Morocco, says one of her interlocutors, has the fifth highest porn use in the world. Sexual relations, already mistrustful and transactional, are thus further influenced by the pornographic violences and objectifications familiar in western culture. All of it, broadcaster Faty Badi, who hosts a relationship call-in show, tells Slimani “leads to violent and vicious social interactions”. It is naive, the author argues, not to grasp that state-enforced sexual frustration and self-deception not only leads to a population “profoundly unmoored”; it will and does have political effects.

Slimani, who is influential not only because of her journalism but also because she is Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for French language and culture (in November 2018, she was named second most influential French person in the world, ahead of Macron), attempts, somewhat brusquely, to head off inevitable criticism that she is indulging in “opportunistic Islamophobia”, and has sold out to the west. My worries would be rather different, namely the random quality that arises from depending on those who came to her over such a short period, and the reliance on statistics from 2010 and from 2015, when she was on her book tour. I would also have liked to hear more from rural, traditional, and especially older women – not just a self-congratulatory chat with her housekeeper – and perhaps from one or two young men, who are also, in their way, victims of the system.

In the end, perhaps knowing that, like Joumana Haddad, Mona Eltahawy and other increasingly prominent feminists from the Arab world, she will come under fire anyway, Slimani trusts in her outrage, in the force of her own voice, and the voices of the women she listens to. And in her argument, which is for individuality, nuance and intellectual honesty, and in favour of Morocco finding its own answers to the issues it faces, rather than adopting western ideas wholesale. She’s also for listening, for talking, for bringing damaging secrets into the light – if only, as a reader of Qandisha, a feminist webzine based in Casablanca, put it fervently, to “make me feel less mad”.

Sex and Lies by Leïla Slimani, translated by Sophie Lewis, is published by Faber (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.

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