BEIRUT -- The censors didn't quite know what to do with Lina Khoury's play about sex, rape, menopause and a visit to the gynecologist, but Islamic hard-liners were pretty specific: One wanted to stone the 32-year-old writer; others accused her of being an Israeli agent planting immoral ideas in the Arab world.
The characters in "Women's Talk" share secrets only uttered when men aren't around. Riffs on pubic hairstyles and sexual desires may be a predictable story line in Hollywood, but here Western-influenced portrayals of women in the arts are condemned by clerics and conservatives as devil-inspired liberalism.
Khoury and her sharp-tongued alter egos are part of a coterie of real-life and fictional women across the Middle East who are pushing boundaries as political talk-show hosts, hip-hop divas, war correspondents, a defiantly divorced columnist and characters such as Vola, the red-haired eccentric of the Lebanese film "The Bus" who slips into an affair without any care of what society thinks.
They are at once liberated and repressed, devout and rebellious. Borrowing from Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce and even Hillary Rodham Clinton, they move between tribal and Islamic customs and media markets that are often layered in sexual innuendo.
In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive or vote, glimpsing equality only during vacations away from the kingdom. But many women in Islamic countries long ago broke through the image of the black-veiled wife peeking from behind courtyard walls. Venture beyond the scrim of conservatism to the film studios of Lebanon, where the diva pose, seductively articulated by Haifa Wehbe, a Shiite Muslim model-actress-singer, is calculated down to the curl of an eyelash.
The crosscurrent of cultures is apparent in Khoury's "Women's Talk," a Middle East version of the Broadway play "The Vagina Monologues" that has turned the diarist into an unwitting Dr. Ruth for women who wear low-cut blouses and slit skirts and also for those draped in niqabs, or face veils, and abayas.
"In the Arab world, I've suddenly become an expert on women and sexuality. It's insane, hilarious. I write plays. I'm not a therapist," said Khoury, whose play closed in February after a two-year run. "Some men are saying that I'm breaking the rules of society and religion. . . . Sexuality and women's freedoms are threatening to men. Some actresses I wanted for the parts wouldn't take them. They were scared of what their husbands or boyfriends would say."
Tempering Western attitudes with Muslim sensibilities becomes a question of how far to push the Middle East's patriarchal societies. This is still a region, after all, where in some countries a wife can be stoned for committing adultery and women make up 9% of lawmakers in Arab parliaments and 33% of the workforce, the lowest percentage in the world.
The candor in Khoury's play is comical and acerbic; one character says her parents would handle an Israeli invasion of Lebanon better than news of her divorce. A more salacious take on women's rights and sexual freedom is Beirut's music-video market that beams seduction into Arab living rooms.
The tension underlying both sides can be spotted on this city's streets where posters of Kalashnikov assault rifles and martyrs for the militant group Hezbollah peek out amid billboards of women who appear as though they've slipped off the pages of Vanity Fair.
"The sexy look in Beirut is provocative and plastic," said Khoury, who was born into a Christian family during Lebanon's civil conflict in the 1980s. "It all grows out of a restricted society of sexual repression. And when this freedom finally does come out, it comes out very dramatically in a concentrated, almost pornographic look."
Out of the shadow
But if you turn off the "bimbos, you see a lot of positive women role models in the media," said Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, head of the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World at Lebanese American University in Beirut. "Lebanon's July 2006 war with Israel was covered by women television correspondents in their 20s. They were going everywhere. They were braver than men."
Women have become important opinion makers in news and talk shows that borrow heavily from Western programming. In 2003, the Algerian newscaster Khadija Ben Ganna became the first anchor on Al Jazeera to wear the hijab on air, a gesture denounced by secularists as a symbol of Islamic revival. In Cairo, the unveiled Mona El Shazly has risen in the ratings with "Ten O'Clock," a show that asks tough questions on politics, social unrest and other sensitive topics.
The cultural terrain between the veil and free-flowing hair has led to contentious debate within Islam over virtue and image. Many Muslim women choose to wear the hijab as an emblem of their religion, a sign of humility to God. Others regard it a fashion accouterment. But growing Islamic devotion in countries such as Egypt has led to an increase in the number of women wearing hijabs, and those who don't often feel societal and family pressures.
An illustration of this dilemma is the cover of Amy Mowafi's new book, "Fe-Mail: The Trials and Tribulations of Being a Good Egyptian Girl," which features a drawing of an unveiled woman in stiletto boots with a halo and a devil's tail. An editor and columnist in Cairo, Mowafi is the Muslim version of the Carrie Bradshaw character in "Sex and the City." Mowafi is not as explicit as the TV show's foursome in New York, but she is unabashed as she stumbles, if not in Manolo Blahniks, "along that precarious line between East and West."
She writes: "And so now I find myself a divorcee, with that big dramatic D word marked upon my forehead. I find myself stranded in this sort of weird wasteland between virgin and whore. I was married, I've obviously been there and done 'it' and enough times to have had the innocence which Arab men so desperately crave thoroughly wiped away . . . or sullied . . . or whatever."
'Good girl syndrome'