Journalist Shereen El Feki feels that the taboo surrounding all subjects relating to sexuality in public discourse in the Arab world is not only an ideological deficit, but also dangerous, due to what she sees as a shocking lack of knowledge across the board. Claudia Kramatschek read her book
It was certainly a symbolic moment: at the peak of the Arab rebellion, women and men were able to protest peacefully along side each other day and night on Cairo's Tahrir Square. Even before the end of Mubarak's rule, a new and more open society seemed possible.
So the shock was all the greater when pictures emerged a short time later of young men attacking a woman in hijab on the edge of the square, undressing her in public.
This episode made it instantly clear that the political revolution had to be followed by a social revolution, to effect far-reaching changes in fixed gender relations and give women and men equal rights and privileges.
A dual perspective
This is the thesis on which the book Sex and the Citadel is based, a book about – as the title has it – "intimate life in a changing Arab world". The author is Shereen El Feki, a renowned immunologist who also writes journalism, among others for Al Jazeera, and also occupies a trans-cultural position as a half-Egyptian woman. In other words, she has a dual perspective: one of empathy and distance at the same time. Her tone is both objective and focused entirely on facts and figures; yet it is refreshingly provocative, particularly because she does not mince words. An example from her book:
"What is that?" 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. (...) 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 answered.
Shereen El Feki opens her book with this startling anecdote – revealing something about herself in doing so. On the one hand, El Feki – the daughter of an Egyptian father and a Welsh mother – brings to light details that will astound and sometimes amuse uninformed readers with no experience of the Arab world.
On the other hand, however, in a curious way, even the book's opening shows that El Feki herself is not always immune to the western-coded 'Orientalist' perspective of that world; the very gaze she is trying to break down with her instructive collection of material.
She spent five years travelling in Arab countries and speaking to people from all sections of society about sexual issues. El Feki makes no claim to completeness. Instead, her book is structured rather like an album full of snapshots with its focus mainly on Egypt due to her own family background.
Conflicting views of Muslim sexuality
For El Feki, it is no coincidence that Egypt was one of the most important hubs of the Arab rebellion. In her opinion, the country's extremely regulated society, coupled with a high percentage of young people, played a key role. She writes: "Since the uprising, Cairo has become a vast billboard for human rights. 'Freedom', 'justice' and 'dignity' are just a few of the catchwords in the graffiti wallpapering the city. But extending these same rights (…) to the sexual lives of all citizens is another matter entirely."
Thus, the way sex is dealt with is not only the lens through which El Feki observes the Arab world, it also forms her benchmark for the region's general capacity for democracy.
El Feki provides her readers with a critical, yet overwhelmingly optimistic overall picture, one which certainly undermines the widespread western image of Islam as prudish and uptight, to a surprising extent: "Lacklustre lovemaking is positively un-Islamic. There are plenty of stories about the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad that extol the pleasures of sex for husbands and wives. ... Indeed, the Prophet's regular advice on the nitty-gritty of sexual life featured prominently in medieval Christian attacks on the new faith."
At times, El Feki's avowals of a once golden age of Islam, in which the faith was sexually open, become slightly grating. What is interesting, however, is her thesis that the Arab world rewrote its own sexual history during the course of colonialisation; cleansing it, in other words.
One hardly need mention that El Feki is of the opinion that the Muslim Brotherhoods' growing influence has helped turn sexuality into a minefield. Even today, she writes, marriage is the only accepted parameter for sexuality, with anything else haram, i.e. impure and therefore forbidden.
Sex education, information, economic upswing
This makes the openness with which El Feki's many interview partners talk to her seem all the more bold. Be it oral or anal intercourse, be it gay, queer or transgender issues, be it the use of western pornography or the imperative of virginity, be it female circumcision, domestic violence or exploitative temporary marriages between Saudi summer visitors and young Egyptian women from poor families – even expressly taboo subjects are addressed.
For El Feki, the taboo nature of these topics in public discourse is not only an ideological deficit; it also has specific and often outrageous consequences, due to what she sees as a shockingly widespread lack of knowledge. Girls think they can get pregnant if their underwear is washed together with men's underwear, for instance. Infection rates for HIV are rising, for example, because both sex education and condoms are considered western and thus haram.
The most pressing needs, El Feki concludes, are therefore sexual education combined with general education and an economic upturn. Only then, she writes, will the path be cleared for a society concerned with much more than the right to sexual freedom, namely also with the right to be respected as a person.
At the same time, it is this basic desire for recognition of one's own humanity that connects East and West – perhaps the most banal and the most important understanding that this book has to offer western readers.
© Qantara.de 2013
Shereen El Feki: Sex and the Citadel. Intimate life in a changing Arab world. Published by Chatto & Windus in the UK, March 2013.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de