Listen to NPR’s On Point interview with Shereen El Feki, author of “Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in an Changing Arab World.” http://onpoint.wbur.org/2013/04/11/sex-and-the-arab-world
The Grand Odalisque by Ingres: Western ideas of eastern sensuality Photo: The Gallery Collection / Corbis
Excerpts from “Sex and the Citadel.”
“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. ―Athing that makes fast movements‖ came to mind, but
as that could equally apply to ahand mixer, I decided to stick with my mother tongue to minimize what I could sensewas rising confusion in the room.One of the women, curled up on a divan beside me, began to unpin her hijab, acascade 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 along 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.
Dependingon 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 thepast and present of a part of the world about which so much is written and still so little isunderstood.
Now, I grant you, sex might seem an odd choice, given the spectacle of popular revoltplaying 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, andYemen for starters—and is shaking up the rest. Some observers, however, have goneso 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 countrymenspend 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 areintimately bound up in religion, tradition, culture, politics, and economics. They are partand parcel of sexuality—that is, the act and all that goes with it, including gender rolesand identity, sexual orientation, pleasure, intimacy, eroticism, and reproduction. Assuch, sexuality is a mirror of the conditions that led to these uprisings, and it will be ameasure of the progress of hard-won reforms in the years to come. In his reflections onthe 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 andlaity, 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 thatdoor. I was working at The Economist when the world turned. Having trained as animmunologist 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 Arabregion. 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 playbookwritten in Washington and London? Why did they behave in ways so contrary toWestern 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 himmy 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 whollyEgyptian, 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 freeto marry ahl al-kitab, or people of the Book
among them, Jews and Christians. For mymother, 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 myparents had me recite before our very British Sunday lunches. As the sole Muslims on
Excerpts and links to various reviews of “Sex and the Citadel”:
Could the Arab Spring provoke a sexual revolution in the Middle East, asks Nicholas Blincoe, reviewing Sex and the Citadel by Shereen El Feki. – The Telegraph
By Nicholas Blincoe
At the height of the anti-Mubarak protests in Tahrir Square in 2011, a young man held up a sign reading, “I want to get married.” It may not sound like the most urgent political demand, but it does prove that sex gets everywhere. Shereen El Feki’s book on sex in the Arabic-speaking world is frequently eye-popping, with its tales of female cross-dressers wearing football kit beneath their black robes, prostitutes catering to rich lesbian Saudis in five-star hotels, or pimps arranging short-lived “summer marriages” between poor teenage girls and elderly men.
The stories lend the book an anecdotal air and may draw criticism that El Feki has cherry-picked the most lurid cases. The truth, however, is that the stories emphasise just how bewildering the issue of sex has become across the Middle East. The mix of national laws, local customs and religious edicts bring nothing but confusion, made all the more extreme because global media have opened up a public space that has never existed before. In politics, business and art, no one has any clue what the future holds. When it comes to sex, there’s not much clarity.
Take homosexuality. An array of public decency laws allow the police to target gay men and close down the places they meet, but there are no specific laws against homosexuality in Egypt. However, when El Feki points this out to a retired police chief, he insists she is wrong. There are laws, and he acted on them throughout his career. In a country where the law is whatever a policeman imagines, the need for reform is urgent. Read More: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9915225/Sex-and-the-Citadel-Intimate-Life-in-a-Changing-Arab-World-by-Shereen-El-Feki-review.html
By Gayle Kimball
El Feki has a unique perspective with access to frank discussions with her father’s relatives and the ability to compare with Western mores based on being raised in Canada with a Welsh mother. She ties attitudes towards gender roles to the ability to create a democratic society after the overthrow of Mubarak. She found that for many in the Arab world, Western values include homosexuality, sex before marriage, mixing of the sexes, women’s liberation and pornography. They’re believed to undermine Islam and traditional Arab values, observed Shereen El Feki. She spent two years interviewing Arabs about sex for her book Sex and the Citadel. The irony, she adds, is that discussion of sexual pleasure and “so much of what they brand as dangerous foreign ideas were features of the Arab-Islamic world long before they were embraced by Western liberalism.” She notes the fear of Western ideas was coupled with a feeling of inferiority that followed Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the British occupation from 1882 to 1952. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s, Hassan al-Banna taught that part of the reason for loss of political power was Egyptian’s sexual immorality and that the solution was to follow Shaira law. (Surveys indicate about a third of Arab young men are sexually active before marriage, compared to about 20% of young women).
Most Egyptian young women now cover their hair, while their mothers and grandmothers didn’t and could wear short skirts without being harassed. In the 1960s and `70s sex was an accepted aspect of films until the rise of Islamic conservatism and official censorship. A return to Islamic fundamentalism was a form of protest against dictatorship, the most extreme form taught by the Salafi movement. Soon after Mubarak was dethroned, Salafi squads of morality police–similar to those in Saudi Arabia–correcting hand-holding couples, etc.
She found a general lack of sex education by either family or schools, leading to many complaints about sexual satisfaction, supported by larger surveys of Egyptians. Widespread female genital mutilation doesn’t help. A Population Council survey of more than 15,0000 young people under age 30 found that 82% of female respondents are circumcised, with a declining rate for younger girls, although most respondents (64%) think it’s a necessary custom. It’s considered necessary to cool women’s sexual desire so she won’t want sex before marriage or be too demanding of her husband. Most young people don’t discuss puberty and sex with their parents. Read More: http://www.amazon.com/Sex-Citadel-Intimate-Changing-World/product-reviews/0307377393/ref=sr_cr_hist_all?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1