The topic of sex seems to always draw a crowd. Sex, Islam and the Arab world seems to magnetize one. The western obsession with Arab and Muslim sexuality seems fixated on harems and hijabs with a sometimes prurient and salacious gaze that fetishizes the exotic other.
Former Al-Jazeera presenter Shereen El-Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel is thankfully not part of the ‘harems and hijabs’ brigade. But her book does delve into the bedrooms of men and women in Egypt and across the region to look at the ways in which sexuality intersect with religion and tradition and is linked to politics and the greater fight for democracy in the region.
At the Melbourne Writers’ festival, El-Feki explains her interest in the topic was piqued as a former health reporter for the Economist writing on HIV in the Arab world and then post September 11 when attention dramatically shifted to the region.
“Wearing the white coat of public health gives you a sort of coat of respectability, so I was able to get in and start to talk to people through the avenue of HIV and reproductive health. But of course once I got in the door I took off the white coat of public health and starting talking about sexuality,” she says.
From desperate housewives, activists and religious firebrands what she found was a portrait of Egyptian society at its most intimate, convulsing in the drama of political and social change, as Arab revolutions swept the region.
The half- Welsh, half-Egyptian Canadian who describes herself as a liberal Muslim, wanted to let Egyptians tell their own stories, and what began as a book for a western audience, morphed into a desire to write for the region.
“The Citadel is the only socially acceptable context for sex in the Arab world- which is marriage. And it’s not any old marriage. It is marriage that’s approved by your family, religion and registered by the state,” she says.
Whilst the majority is desperate to fit into the Citadel, there are an increasing number of those who can’t. Young men not able afford marriage due to high unemployment; professional, educated women unable to find equal partners, and at the fringes outside the Citadel, the plight of female sex workers and the gay community.
El-Feki says she was careful not to judge the choices of the women she interviewed, in light of her own connection to the culture and religion and but also with an appreciation of the context of her interview subjects.
The assumption is that repressive attitudes towards sexuality in Egypt stem from Islam, but the reality is more complex, El-Feki says.
“In fact if you go back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, if you read the hadith, which are accounts of the words and deeds of the Prophet you come across a man who spoke very frankly, very openly about sex,” she says
“What we find over a thousand years is an incredibly rich (Arab) discourse around sex…I’m telling you there is nothing in the Joy of Sex or Cosmopolitan or dare I say it Fifty shades of grey that you do not see a thousand years ago.”
A lot of these writings were done by religious scholars who saw nothing incompatible in talking about the pleasures of the flesh and needs of the faith, El-Feki says.
But European colonialism in the 19th century saw an absorption of repressive western attitudes towards sex in the Arab world. Later on, 20th century anti-colonial Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood forged a puritanical approach in reaction to what was seen as the libertine west.
It wasn’t a coincidence that restrictive codes coincided cultural and political repression. El-Feki says the way forward is not in aping the west or a perceived Islamic golden age but in reigniting the spirit of inquiry and open discussion that can help navigate modern dilemmas.
As for El-Feki herself, she is coy about her relationship vis-à-vis the Citadel, but admits getting married in the process of writing the book she began in 2007, despite at times despairing when hearing stories of women frustrated in their marriages.
“At one point I began to adopt quite a strong discourse against marriage and patriarchy. My fiancé turned to me and said “I am not the patriarchy! I am your fiancé!”
“After I overcame the slight ideological tremor all was well. I am delighted that love triumphed over ideology in this instance.”