Egypt’s ‘Dr. Ruth’ Takes on Taboo Topic With Help From Maimonides

Cairo, Egypt - Masturbation, oral sex and foreplay are strictly taboo discussion topics in conservative Egyptian society. Yet with impressive comfort, Heba Kotb, dubbed Egypt’s “Dr. Ruth,” covers these issues in depth on her weekly satellite television program, “The Big Talk.” Kotb’s level of comfort sharply declines, however, when asked about her education: Kotb, 39, received a degree in clinical sexology from Maimonides University, a Jewish-affiliated institution in Florida.

“The big question that Heba had originally was how she would be received when she showed up at a Jewish school wearing a headscarf,” said William Granzig, a renowned sexologist who was president of Maimonides University when Kotb enrolled. “I said we would respond to her as we would to any student. There was trepidation on her part enrolling in a Jewish school, thinking we were Israelis who were going to kill all Arabs.”

Kotb, who describes herself as a religious person, reacted defensively when asked about her affiliation with a Jewish institution.

“It’s a classroom,” she said in an interview with the Forward. “Muslims and Jews are not animals. Maybe Muslim Arabs and Zionists are animals. But we have to approve what Moses said and the Torah to be Muslims. We must approve the Torah as a divine message.”

Kotb’s interest in sexology arose while drafting her dissertation at Cairo University on sexual child abuse. Her research led her to read extensively on sexuality, a field completely unaddressed in her previous medical studies and about which she felt ill informed. Concerned that her own lack of sexual knowledge reflected a broader deficiency in Muslim societies, Kotb began exploring sexual discourse in Islamic sources. To her fascination, she discovered a wealth of material.

“I was amazed that this was in my religion,” she said. “I was proud to be a Muslim and be part of a religion dealing with these issues, which had only become known a few decades ago.” Kotb assembled her findings and presented “Sex and Islam” at a conference.

With no programs in sexology available to her in Egypt, Kotb looked for suitable programs online. She found only one program existed in the Middle East, but it is based in Haifa and she refused to enroll in an Israeli program. “Even Iranian rabbis were against Israel and Zionism, and always demonstrated against it,” she claimed. “But Zionism isn’t Judaism.”

Maimonides University, which tailors its schedule so that students spend minimal time on campus, offered the most attractive option. Founded as an Orthodox Sephardic graduate institution with degrees in Jewish dietary laws and theology, Maimonides first offered courses in sexology when its rabbinical students demanded training for counseling congregants on marital issues. Shortly thereafter, a Ph.D. program in clinical sexology was offered in which religious sexual ethics were interwoven, though not emphasized.

Granzig said that he himself encouraged Kotb to enroll, and the two developed a warm working relationship, though the subject of Granzig’s own religious affiliation did not come up and Kotb — who refers to Granzig as her “American father” — does not know he is Jewish.

“I’m sure she thinks I’m Episcopalian,” Granzig said.

While he added that Kotb expressed some concern at first, he noted that in the end her most intense interactions at the school were with an observant Pakistani physician, with whom she argued regarding interpretations of the Qur’an.

In fact, Kotb’s religious outlook is a major component of her appeal for her patients. Beyond her work as a television host and sex columnist, Kotb has run a sexology clinic in Cairo’s Mohandessin neighborhood since 2002. In her private sessions, Kotb exclusively counsels married individuals on sexual issues, so as not to encourage premarital sexuality, which is strictly forbidden in Islam. She also works with unmarried individuals possessing health or mental problems related to sexuality.

One American-Egyptian couple living in the United States, who saw Kotb on Arabic satellite television, decided to stop in for six sessions during a recent trip to visit relatives in Egypt. “Part of being a Muslim therapist is her knowing what the basis of a husband and wife should be in Islamic tradition,” said the wife, who requested that her name not be used. “She applies sex therapy according to Islamic rules and our culture. Therapists in America don’t take religion into account.” The couple was also wary of group therapy, which they said is often the recourse for sexual problems in the United States. “Here, it is more discreet,” the wife said.

As Kotb’s star rises throughout the Muslim world — her clinical schedule is booked three months in advance, and she has recently spoken at conferences in Yemen and Saudi Arabia — she maintains contact with Granzig, whom she has frequently invited to address audiences in Egypt. Thus far, Granzig has declined the offers, in part because he anticipates uncomfortable reactions to his Jewish affiliation. “I’m so tired of the ‘we love the Jews and hate the Israelis’ mentality,” he said. “Instantly, if people have this view, they will become antisemitic.”

Maimonides University, meanwhile, is in flux. According to Granzig, the school’s current president, Rabbi Dr. Stefano Dimauro, has temporarily left Florida to revive Orthodox Judaism in Sicily, and the Web-based clinical sexology program has been down for a month. Confusion surrounding the university’s status led Kotb to believe it had closed. “Maybe it was Hamas,” she joked.

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