Cover of book: Sex and Lies

Leïla Slimani
Sex and Lies

Sex and Lies speaks in doublethink: having freedom, as long as it’s secret; erasing the idea of sexuality, while building a capitalist system where a woman’s worth can be measured in profitability. But this is less an Orwellian world than the hardline Islamist society of Morocco, which sees “universal feminism [as] nothing but a Trojan horse from the West”.

Originally published in French in 2017, the French–Moroccan journalist and novelist Leïla Slimani’s book of essays has been skilfully translated into English by Sophie Lewis. The book’s backbone is a series of first-person accounts given to Slimani. Each reveals what it means to be a woman living in modern-day Morocco and gives the reader a sense of being entrusted with a hard-won secret.

Sex and Lies borrows from various forms – long-form essay, memoir, cultural and oral history – to tell the story of a country in constant flux, one where women have to “fight to make people respect you” while also participating in a secretive “spatio-sexual kind of DIY” movement. The unevenness in form can be frustrating, taking us out of a compelling experience to constantly prove why these stories are so dangerous to tell. The book is at its most powerful when Slimani’s sources – who range from housekeepers to reformist thinkers to sex workers – speak for themselves, without the author’s intervention.

Slimani is judicious in her research: her bibliography cites Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists alongside Foucault and the work of Lebanese author and activist Joumana Haddad. Yet the book’s conclusion that the rarest freedom is “the right to think for oneself” falls flat precisely because so much of what we are told and shown – and allowed to think – is because of who felt comfortable going on the record with the author.

That isn’t to say this isn’t an important book, or one that can’t challenge and crack open binary thinking about gender and desire in Islamic states. But the ethical dilemmas of this book remain uninterrogated. A source tells Slimani, “Just being myself is activism, in a way.” Yet when the costs of this activism are reiterated by the author throughout the text – humiliation, transgression, loss of freedom, and at one point even giving up Friday couscous and not being allowed to rebel – readers may be left wondering who will get the final say in the future of their country.

Nathania Gilson

Faber, 176pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2020 as "Leïla Slimani, Sex and Lies".

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