‘How I came to be demonstrating sex toys to a coffee morning of Cairo housewives is a long story.”
With Shereen El Feki musing thus in her introduction to “Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World,” any suspicion that her book is dry and academic evaporates. Conversational yet informed, witty without succumbing to frivolity, and buttressed every so often by statistical findings, “Sex and the Citadel” emerges from a five-year, somewhat desultory investigation of sexual mores in a region undergoing political transformation. The author, a health and science journalist and former vice-chair of the United Nations Global Commission on HIV and the Law, focuses on Egypt, but also visits Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, and (briefly) Israel and the United Arab Emirates. She talks to ordinary people, health professionals, sex workers, and to activists on behalf of women’s rights and those (gently) pushing for cultural acceptance and legal protection of sexual minorities.
The time in the West (not long ago) when premarital and homosexual sex were demonized, domestic violence against women and marital rape were rarely prosecuted, and women’s sexuality was viewed as a threat is still very much the present era in most Arab countries. El Feki, the daughter of a Welsh mother and an Egyptian father, argues that neither Arab culture nor Islam mandates such a grim state of affairs. She brings to her subject an indignant sensibility recalling in some ways that of the social revolutionaries of the 1960s, who lamented that reality, instead of galloping toward the ideal, tarried and procrastinated.
“Sex and the Citadel” has almost no underlying structure — El Feki seems to acknowledge as much by calling it “an album of snapshots” — but features recurrent themes. One is the notion that in order for personal freedoms to gain greater acceptance, the importance of the individual must first stamp itself on family-oriented Arab culture. Another is that Egyptian society must bridge the chasm between the private sphere, where the forbidden is performed, and the public one, where it is denounced.
Sometimes El Feki wants it both ways; she maintains that Islam is flexible on women’s rights and many sexual matters, but predicts that “for as long as religion remains central to people’s lives, with God, the ultimate father figure, in charge, the patriarchy is unlikely to totter.” Elsewhere, she bravely touches on a possible weakness in her argument for the significance of the Arabic erotic literature of yore, wondering, “Did its openness really represent society at large, or just the notions of the sexually sophisticated elite?”
Perhaps the author’s most insightful observation is that in repressed Egypt, various organizations campaigning for women’s rights, combating sexual harassment, and tackling sex-associated health issues are “the socially acceptable coalface of sexual rights.” She values such work on its own merits, but also makes a convincing case that the resulting public discussion of matters tangentially related to sex will eventually lead to the mainstreaming of sex-centered issues such as freedom and orientation.
“When it comes to sexuality,” El Feki remarks, “the Arab world can seem like a citadel, an impregnable fortress whose outer face repels any perceived assault on the bastion of heterosexual marriage and family.” Arabs aren’t exactly descending on the citadel en masse and besieging it.
But, as El Feki shows, some of them have cautiously set forth in the direction of the fortress. A few have even swum across its moat and now loiter tentatively outside its locked gates. Though they left their battering rams behind and are too timid to scale the ramparts, perhaps these men and women, once their numbers are sufficiently augmented, will holler loud enough to oblige the guardians of cultural and religious orthodoxy ensconced within to finally heed their polite but firm requests for change.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer
and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at calaboose@gmail