Global Sex in The Arab World Through Shereen’s Lens

In keeping with that spirit, Sex and the Citadel does not leave out any subject that would have been thought to be “too bold”

Ranjita Biswas Kolkata 

Shereen El Feki has definitely stirred things up with her debut book, Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, which explores sexuality in the Arab world today. “Sex is the lens through which I study society because what happens in intimate life is shaped by forces on a bigger stage,” says El Feki, who effortlessly combines the roles of writer, broadcaster and academic.

Being an Egyptian and Muslim, who grew up in Canada, she has always been keen on getting up close and personal with her Arab heritage. In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, as prejudices against Muslims grew, she realised she needed to know more about her own roots. She wanted to understand the people of the region and perceive where misconceptions and misunderstandings were coming from.

Taking up the job of a broadcaster with Al Jazeera was, therefore, a conscious decision. It gave her access to the Middle East and the perfect opportunity to interact with locals. So how did El Feki develop an interest in exploring sexuality in the region? She explains, “As a health correspondent who was especially tracking HIV/AIDS, I was surprised to find people telling me that ‘there was no AIDS here’. That made me curious because it’s been observed that the disease is growing the fastest in the Middle East and North Africa now. In regions where it’s known to have a high incidence — for example, in South Africa and neighbouring countries — its spread has somewhat stabilised after corrective and sustained measures were taken.” The undeniable inference from this situation was that there was a lot of ignorance and denial regarding sex and sexuality among ordinary people.

Just as in the rest of the world, young people in the Arab world today are also getting married later than in an earlier eras. But in a conservative social milieu, what is happening to youngsters who are sexually active? Are adolescent girls and women aware of their reproductive rights? And do married women have fulfilling sex lives? As these questions came to El Feki, she decided to investigate the issue. But she says, “It’s never easy to ask people about their sex lives – and more so in a more traditional society. So I looked at the subject as a public health issue, making it simpler for me to approach the respondents.”

In 2007, she started work on Sex and the Citadel… As the Vice-chair of UN’s Global Commission on HIV/AIDS and the Law, she visited several countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Lebanon, among others, for HIV/AIDS advocacy. That’s when she did her research as well.

When El Feki interviewed the women – married and single – and men, they opened up to her without much difficulty, even on the intimate questions. “They were comfortable talking to me because not only do I look western – and therefore come with the stereotypical image of ‘free mixing’ – but at the same time I have Egyptian roots. So they felt I could empathise with them,” she elaborates. 

Over five years, El Feki collected varied experiences. She recounts how women were grateful that they could speak to someone about issues like sexual dissatisfaction in married life and desire because they were afraid they would be considered ‘bad women’ if they talked about it even with their partners. In the book, she writes: ‘If you know only Arabic, don’t have the money to consult a specialist, and lack easy access to the internet, your options for explicit advice on sexual matters are limited – all the more so if you’re a woman. My friend Azza and her circle were at a loss. In their desperation for details, they turned to me for help. “Ya Shereen, they have so many problems,” Azza said. “They are not satisfied with their husbands, but they don’t know what to do.”

 

El Feki also found that married Arab women generally equated sexual freedom with being in a marriage where they could share a friendly relationship with their husband, who would respect and love them. The author has referred to a Turkish television soap that has around 85 million followers in Egypt, mostly women, which shows “the kind of love and companionship with the partner [that women] often lack in their own married life.” 

While researching, an interesting observation that she made was that “the more educated the women are, the greater is their reluctance to talk about sex”. She adds, “As for the unmarried girls, all their concerns centred on ‘virginity’ and family ‘honour’, which are very important in Arab society. Abortion is another thorny issue, especially if it is an unmarried female who has conceived. But, unlike popular perceptions in the West, there are ways in which the otherwise strict laws can be interpreted to help them. Laws differ from country to country and there are 22 diverse countries in this region. Not all societies are as closed as we think of them from outside.”

In fact, according to El Feki’s research, the Arab world was not always quite so conservative when it came to sex, at least until the 10th century. People were finding solutions to their problems, while staying true to their religion and culture. She writes, ‘There is a long history in Islam, right back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, of talking frankly about sex – not just its problems but also its pleasures, and not just for men but also for women.’

In keeping with that spirit, Sex and the Citadel does not leave out any subject that would have been thought to be “too bold”. From sexual pleasure to contraception, female circumcision or fellatio, masturbation, homosexuality and abortion, she has covered the entire gamut of adult sexual life.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2014