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Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab Worldby Shereen El Feki
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“What is it?”
Six pairs of dark eyes stared at me—or rather, at the small purple rod in my hand.
“It’s a vibrator,” I answered, in English, racking my brain for the right Arabic word. “A thing that makes fast movements” came to mind, but as that could equally apply to a hand mixer, I decided to stick with my mother tongue to minimize what I could sense was rising confusion in the room.
One of the women, curled up on a divan beside me, began to unpin her hijab, a cascade of black hair falling down her back as she carefully put her headscarf to one side. “What does it do?” she asked.
“Well, it vibrates,” I added, taking a sip of mint tea and biting into a piece of syrupy baklava to buy myself some time before the inevitable rejoinder.
How I came to be demonstrating sex toys to a coffee morning of Cairo housewives is a long story. I have spent the past five years traveling across the Arab region asking people about sex: what they do, what they don’t, what they think and why. Depending on your perspective, this might sound like a dream job or a highly dubious occupation. For me, it is something else altogether: sex is the lens through which I investigate the past and present of a part of the world about which so much is written and still so little is understood.
Now, I grant you, sex might seem an odd choice, given the spectacle of popular revolt playing out across the Arab world since the beginning of this decade, which has taken with it some of the region’s most entrenched regimes—in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen for starters—and is shaking up the rest. Some observers, however, have gone so far as to argue that it was youthful sexual energy that fueled the protests in the first place. I’m not so sure. While I’ve often heard Egyptians say their fellow countrymen spend 99.9 percent of their time thinking about sex, in the heady days of early 2011, making love appeared, for once, to be the last thing on people’s minds.
Yet I don’t believe it was entirely out of sight. Sexual attitudes and behaviors are intimately bound up in religion, tradition, culture, politics, and economics. They are part and parcel of sexuality—that is, the act and all that goes with it, including gender roles and identity, sexual orientation, pleasure, intimacy, eroticism, and reproduction. As such, sexuality is a mirror of the conditions that led to these uprisings, and it will be a measure of the progress of hard-won reforms in the years to come. In his reflections on the history of the West, the French philosopher Michel Foucault described sexuality as “an especially dense transfer point for relations of power: between men and women, young people and old people, parents and offspring, teachers and students, priests and laity, an administration and a population.” The same is true in the Arab world: if you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.
Had it not been for the events of September 11, 2001, I might never have opened that door. I was working at The Economist when the world turned. Having trained as an immunologist before becoming a journalist, I was on the health and science beat, far removed from the great political debates of the day. From these sidelines, I had a chance to sit back and watch my colleagues grapple with the complexities of the Arab region. I saw their confidence in Anglo-American might and exuberance in the early afterglow of the war in Iraq gradually turn to doubt, then bewilderment. Why weren’t Iraqis rushing to embrace this new world order? Why did they rarely follow the playbook written in Washington and London? Why did they behave in ways so contrary to Western expectations? In short, what makes them tick?
For me, these are not questions of geopolitics or anthropology; this is a matter of personal identity. The Arab world is in my blood: my father is Egyptian, and through him my family roots stretch from the concrete of Cairo to cotton fields deep in the Nile Delta. My mother comes from a distant green valley—a former mining village in South Wales. This makes me half Egyptian, though most people in the Arab region shake their heads when I tell them this. To them there is no “half” about it; because my father is wholly Egyptian, so am I. And because he is Muslim, I too was born Muslim. My mother’s family is Christian: her father was a Baptist lay preacher, and her brother, in a leap of Anglican upward mobility, became a vicar in the Church of Wales. But my mother converted to Islam on marrying my father. She was not obliged to; Muslim men are free to marry ahl al-kitab, or people of the Book—among them, Jews and Christians. For my mother, becoming Muslim was a matter of conviction, not coercion.
I was born in England and raised in Canada long before “Muslims in the West” was a talking point. There were a few of us at school (I grew up in a university town near Toronto), but I never thought much of it. Then again, I was brought up with an icing of Islam on an otherwise Western lifestyle: my only observances were steering clear of pork and alcohol and learning al-Fatiha—the opening chapter of the Qur’an—which my parents had me recite before our very British Sunday lunches. As the sole Muslims on the block, we were always the first to put up Christmas lights, and Easter never passed without a clutch of chocolate eggs.
As for Egypt, each year we would visit my grandmother Nuna Aziza and a vast circle of aunts, uncles, and cousins. We were the outliers: my mother was the only Western woman (khawagayya, in Egyptian Arabic) to have married into the family, and during my childhood, we were the only members living outside of Egypt. So between my father’s prestige as the eldest son and my own exotic pedigree, I basked in the spotlight. My nuna’s apartment was a shrine to our tiny branch of the family in exile; amid the plastic plants and the frolicking shepherds and coy maidens in petit point, our photos were crammed onto coffee tables and consoles, whose delicate gilded legs seemed unequal to the weight of so much grandmotherly affection. Growing up, I came to love Egypt and respect Islam, but I never thought to go beyond the surface.
Back in Canada, many of my father’s Egyptian friends questioned his decision not to raise his only child more strictly in the faith. I was not taught salat, the Muslim ritual of prayer, nor did I study Arabic. It was not for want of conviction on my father’s part. He is a devout Muslim who prays five times a day and recites the Qur’an every morning, from memory; he’s a hajji, having gone on pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina; he scrupulously observes the fast during Ramadan and never fails to pay zakat, or alms for the poor. But my father saw his friends push Islam and their own Arab upbringing on their children—particularly their daughters—like a vaccine against the perceived ills of the West. More often than not, however, what these parents saw as a danger, their children embraced as an opportunity, many turning away from a religious and cultural heritage that seemed to them like too much strong medicine. My parents, on the other hand, gave me the freedom to come to my religion and my roots on my own terms and in my own time.
That moment came after September 11. Like so many others who straddle East and West, I was impelled to take a closer look at my origins. That I chose sex as my lens is unusual—but understandable, given my background. Part of my job at The Economist was writing about HIV, and that included the grim task of reporting on the state of the global epidemic. Each year, UNAIDS, the United Nations agency in charge of tracking the disease, issues updates full of daunting statistics. What always grabbed my attention were not the huge numbers of those living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia but the tiny ones in the Arab region, where the prevalence of infection was only a fraction of what it was elsewhere. How, in an era of mass migration and instant access, could one part of the world stay seemingly immune to HIV? Was it possible that people in the Arab region were simply not engaging in risky behavior—that there was no needle sharing or contaminated blood supplies or unsafe sex?
As I started to ask questions, I began to tumble into the gap between public appearance, as reflected in official statistics, and private reality. While many people were busy reassuring me that HIV was not, and could never be, the problem in the Arab world that it was elsewhere, I was meeting whole families who were infected and was hearing the increasingly urgent pleas of those working quietly to stop the epidemic in its tracks. The more I looked, the more I realized that the main wedge between appearance and reality was sex: a collective unwillingness to face up to any behavior that fell short of a marital ideal, a resistance buttressed by religious interpretation and social convention.
In broad strokes, this sexual climate looks a lot like the West on the brink of the sexual revolution. And many of the same underlying forces that drove change in Europe and America are present in the modern Arab world, if only in embryo: struggles toward democracy and personal rights; the rapid growth of cities and a growing strain on family structures, loosening community controls on private behavior; a huge population of young people whose influences and attitudes diverge from those of their parents; the changing role of women; the transformation of sex into a consumer good through economic expansion and liberalization. Add to that greater exposure to the sexual mores of other parts of the world brought about through media and migration. All of which raises the question: As political upheaval convulses the region, is a sexual shake‑up next in line?
Because of their essential differences in history, religion, and culture, the West is no guide to how change will play out in the Arab world. Development is a journey, not a race, and different societies take different paths. Some destinations are, however, more desirable than others. I believe that a society that allows people to make their own choices and to realize their sexual potential, that provides them with the education, tools, and opportunities to do so, and that respects the rights of others in the process is a better place for it. I do not believe this is fundamentally incompatible with social values in the Arab world, which was once more open to the full spectrum of human sexuality and could be so again. Nor need this irremediably clash with the region’s dominant faith: it is through their interpretations of Islam that many Muslims are boxing themselves and their religion in.
This book is the story of those who are trying to break free: researchers who dare to probe the very heart of sexual life; scholars who are reinterpreting traditional texts that currently constrain choices; lawyers who are fighting for more equitable legislation; doctors who are trying to relieve the physical and psychological fallout; religious leaders who are brave enough to preach tolerance where they once talked of damnation; activists who are on the streets trying to make sex safe; writers and filmmakers who are challenging the limits of sexual expression; bloggers who are forging a new space for public debate. And it is also the story of those who oppose them; the shifting political landscape of the Arab region, after decades of stasis, is opening new opportunities for both.
It took more than a thousand days to assemble these stories, and, like One Thousand and One Nights, these tales lead into each other in often unexpected ways. In chapter 1 they help us to understand how sexual attitudes in the East and West have shifted over time. In chapter 2, they illuminate the trouble with marriage, in and out of the bedroom. In chapter 3 they show us the sexual minefield of youth, and in chapter 4, they point to ways of navigating safe passage through it with sex education, contraception, and abortion—and what to do when the trigger is pressed, as in the case of unwed motherhood. Chapter 5 examines the many shades of sex work in the region and the prospects for those involved. In chapter 6 we look at those who break the heterosexual mold and how they themselves see the way forward. Finally, chapter 7 takes a wide-angle view of the current state of affairs and considers how a fairer and more fulfilling sexual culture might develop in the coming decades. For all the predicaments these stories highlight, this isn’t another book about what’s wrong with the Arab region. It’s about what’s right: how people on the ground are solving their problems in ways that often look different from responses elsewhere in the world. This is not an academic tome, nor a slice of Arab exotica. It is, in the end, an album of snapshots from across the region taken by someone trying to better understand the region in order to better understand herself. Those looking for an encyclopedia, or a peep show, should search elsewhere.
So far, I have talked about the Arab world as a collective entity, as if one could generalize about twenty-two countries, three hundred fifty million people, three major religions, dozens of religious sects and ethnic groups. The term Middle East is even more of a geographical blender, mashing together not only the Arabic-speaking countries of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the eastern Mediterranean but also non-Arab Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and occasionally Pakistan thrown in for good measure. While there are essential similarities in sexual attitudes and behaviors across Arab countries, there are also important differences in how societies are—or are not—tackling these challenges. Such distinctions transcend sexuality and are clearly reflected in the different trajectories of political change prompted by the popular uprisings of this decade.
So from now on, specifics. This book is centered on Egypt, and in particular Cairo, whose population represents the length of the country and the breadth of a vast social spectrum. Personal history aside, Egypt is a natural focus because it is the most populous country in the Arab region, because of its strategic geopolitical importance, and because it retains formidable political, economic, social, and cultural influence across the region. When I started my journey, few in the area—outside of Egypt, that is—agreed with me. Pivot of the Arab world for centuries, almost sixty years of post–World War II military dictatorship had sorely diminished Egypt, while its neighbors rose in economic, political, and cultural prominence. Egypt had been written off as a lost cause, a country plagued by poverty, narrow-minded Islamism, crumbling infrastructure, cultural decline, rampant corruption, and political sclerosis. Or, as my taxi driver in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, put it, with devastating simplicity: “Egyptians, so egotistical. And for what?”
Egypt, they said, had lost the plot. But once its millions rose up against the regime, the same voices heralded it as a beacon of transformation across the region. Farther afield, protesters from Wall Street to Sydney have tried to bring Egypt’s uprising home. Since 2011, worldwide solidarity protests, the nervousness in Western capitals, the anxiety of Arab leaders, and continuous global media coverage have amply demonstrated that what happens in Egypt still matters, not just for its own citizens but for the rest of the world as well. Egypt has rediscovered its geopolitical mojo, and in the process it has gained a long-term opportunity to reshape its society, including its sexual culture—shifts that its neighbors will be watching closely.
On many of the tough issues of sexuality, models for change lie close to home. This is a question of pragmatism, not chauvinism. While substantial progress on issues of sexuality has been made elsewhere in the Global South, and there are impressive lessons to learn, it is only natural that Egyptians should more readily appreciate, and adopt, change when they see it in a more easily identifiable package. And so I have looked to Morocco and Tunisia in the west and to Lebanon in the east, which offer models for Egypt in dealing with at least some of its collective sexual problems. I have also traveled through countries in the Gulf—United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, among them. This region has considerable influence on Egyptians through media, money, and migration and has powerfully shaped (or warped, some would argue) Egypt’s social and sexual attitudes over the past half century. And you will hear voices from other parts of the Arab region whose situations shed light on Egypt’s state of affairs.
“Excuse me if I sometimes do no more than hint at the names of the heroes of my anecdotes, and do not mention them more explicitly. . . . It is enough for me to name only those whom naming does not harm, and whose mention brings no opprobrium either upon ourselves or them; either because the affair is so notorious that concealment and the avoidance of clear specification will do the party concerned no good, or for the simple reason that the person being reported on is quite content that his story should be made public, and by no means disapproves of it being bandied about.” This disclaimer comes from Ibn Hazm, a Muslim philosopher in Spain in the tenth and eleventh centuries, whose famous treatise, The Ring of the Dove, is a user’s guide to falling in, and out of, love. A millennium later, I have followed the same policy: if it’s first name only, then that name has been changed.
I was a scientist before I became a journalist, and this book reflects that training. Wherever possible, I have complemented personal stories with hard data; as vice-chair of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, a body established by the United Nations to advocate for legal reform, including laws regulating sexuality, around the world, I was given privileged access to both. Such information is difficult to come by in the Arab region because research on sexuality here is still scarce. Many pressing questions have yet to be addressed, and results have, as often as not, ended up in a locked drawer.
The goal of this book is to help change that, as part of what millions across the Arab world are hoping will be a new era of openness and intellectual freedom. To this end, Sex and the Citadel is accompanied by a website, www.sexandthecitadel.com, where you can find a wealth of additional facts, figures, and findings on the topics at hand, as indicated in the endnotes. I encourage readers not only to visit the site but also to contribute to it by posting related news, events, and research, in Arabic, English, or French. The site aims to be a clearinghouse for information on sexuality in the Arab region and, along with this book, a resource for all those who wish to understand the past, the present, and to collectively forge a better sexual future for coming generations. Sex and the Citadel is by no means the last word on sex in the Arab world, but it is an early step at a turning point in the region’s history, for others to take forward.
If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.
As political change sweeps the streets and squares, the parliaments and presidential palaces of the Arab world, Shereen El Feki has been looking at an upheaval a little closer to home—in the sexual lives of men and women in Egypt and across the region. The result is an informative, insightful, and engaging account of a highly sensitive and still largely secret aspect of Arab society.
Sex is entwined in religion, tradition, politics, economics, and culture, so it is the perfect lens through which to examine the complex social landscape of the Arab world. From pregnant virgins to desperate housewives, from fearless activists to religious firebrands, from sex work to same-sex relations, Sex and the Citadel takes a fresh look at the sexual history of the region and brings new voices to the debate over its future.
This is no peep show or academic treatise but a highly personal and often humorous account of one woman’s journey to better understand Arab society at its most intimate and, in the process, to better understand her own origins. Rich with five years of groundbreaking research, Sex and the Citadel gives us a unique and timely understanding of everyday lives in a part of the world that is changing before our eyes.
Shereen El Feki is a writer, broadcaster, and academic who started her professional life in medical science before going on to become an award-winning journalist for The Economist and a presenter on Al Jazeera English. She is former vice-chair of the U.N.’s Global Commission on HIV and Law, and a TED Global Fellow. She divides her time between London and Cairo.
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