Nancy Fares talks taboos, sex, religion, and marriage with one of Egypt's first niqabi relationship coaches.
'Black tent' is what many people think when they see a niqabi woman on the street. The full-face cover is commonly associated with oppression and blind religious conservatism. So naturally, we were surprised when we stumbled upon Egyptian niqabi woman Sarah Soliman who is a relationship coach; a profession which entails discussing intimate sexual matters and other relationship issues with struggling couples.
The story began after Soliman earned her bachelors degree in social sciences after which she became occupied with marriage, giving birth, and the time-consuming responsibilities that come with the process. Five years ago, a relative of hers divorced his wife right after they became parents to a baby boy, which shocked Soliman and made her question the stability of the institution of marriage in Egypt. This was the ultimate turning point where she began educating herself online in accordance with her degree in order to one day be able to counsel the struggling couples around her.
In 2013, Soliman took off to the US to undertake a specialised course in relationship coaching, with plans to take it on as a career after her return. Contrary to her expectations, Soliman didn't face any discrimination or bias in the US because of her niqab. "I was surprised by the amount of respect and freedom I felt in the US. I never had to take off my niqab except for security reasons. No one paid attention to it or asked me why I was wearing it," Soliman explains.
Upon her return to Egypt, Soliman embarked on her professional career as a relationship coach, which was met by mockery and criticism. "The first feedback I received was from a male client mocking me and wondering: how can a niqabi woman could fix my marriage or teach me anything?" says Soliman, adding that otherwise it was mostly women who had issues with her choice of dress. However, this negative view didn't impede on the chance for others to seek her help and counsel; her niqab was no issue to them.
How can a niqabi woman could fix my marriage or teach me anything?
"People come looking for the solution, which is not something I have. My role is to ask them questions to unearth the underlying issues from within, which is where the problems all originate from," Soliman explains. Her dedication to her cases and success in saving many marriages saw a staggering hike in the number of couples who now come to her. She became empowered to reach a segment of society who merely focused on her work and performance as opposed to her appearance.
The tricky part, however, is when the coaching needs to address the intimate sexual relationship between married couples, at which point Soliman maintains a professional attitude and takes an educational approach to the matter. This helps her deconstruct the embarrassment and shame usually associated with such an intrusive analysis of one's sex life, particularly that of the couples who come to her.
Soliman encourages the women she coaches to be more outspoken about their sexual issues and desires in order for them to shamelessly explore and enjoy their sexuality with their husbands. She also does not shy away from recommending adult sex toys but these are sometimes rejected by women out of fear of being deemed indecent by their husbands. "At the start of my coaching course, I dedicate an entire session on bettering communication. The lack of good communication constitutes half the problems with any marriage. I tell them you have only one thing you share and that is your relationship, so start talking about it," Soliman adds.
From her experience, Soliman discovered that the most common reasons for divorce are cheating and extramarital affairs, including the regular consumption of porn, which she views as an addiction that needs treatment and specialised attention. She believes that these issues primarily stem from the fact that married couples take the decision to tie their lives together based on the fact that they love each other and in a lot of cases, this isn't enough. She calls on all newlyweds and engaged couples to seek therapy and relationship coaching even if they don't have issues as it will help their relationships grow in healthier and more loving directions.
Who said that the piece of fabric I have on my face defines who I am? Who said just because of my clothing choice that I can't talk about relationships?
"Who said that the piece of fabric I have on my face defines who I am? Who said just because of my clothing choice that I can't talk about relationships? Niqab isn't equivalent to oppression and closed-mindedness, it's just another misconception in people's minds," Soliman explains. She adds that she wouldn't have been where she is if she didn't have the support and love of her husband, who encouraged to pursue her passions and disregard the stereotype in which society wants to lock her in.
Translation: Moustafa Daly