“If you really want to know people, start by looking in their bedrooms,” says Shereen El Feki, author of the new book Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World (Pantheon).
El Feki, a practicing Muslim who was raised in Canada, is the former vice chair of the U.N.’s Global Commission on HIV and Law and a former correspondent for The Economist. Born to an Egyptian father and Welsh mother, she was motivated by 9/11 to seek a better understanding of her Arab and Islamic heritage.
El Feki found that demonstrators for political freedom in Tahrir Square during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution had little interest in promoting sexual freedom. That’s because most Arabs, regardless of their feelings about political reform, continue to derive their sexual mores from religion. Therefore, she argues, the only way to introduce more sexual freedom to the Arab world is through Islam, a religion that was far more tolerant of the needs of the flesh 1,000 years ago than it is today.
In March, El Feki joined novelist and former sex worker Tracy Quan for an event hosted by the Reason Foundation at New York City’s Museum of Sex. The two discussed why political freedom won’t automatically lead to sexual freedom, how the “summer marriage” phenomenon attempts to combine religious tradition with prostitution, the nascent Arab gay rights movement, frustrated Muslim housewives, and a medieval Arabic dictionary with more than 1,000 verbs for having sex. Questions are from Quan and the audience. For video of the interview, go to reason.com.
Q: We tend to think of the Arab world in very political terms. Why did you choose sex as the focus of your book? Why is that so important?
A: The reason I chose sex was because of my connection to HIV/AIDS. If you want to understand HIV in the Arab world, you have to look at sex, because it is the major route of transmission for most cases in the region. Most people think we don’t have a lot of HIV in the Arab world, and that’s actually true for the moment. We have these isolated concentrated epidemics. But I can tell you, there’re only two parts of the world in which the number of new infections from HIV and the number of deaths from HIV are increasing. One of those two regions is the Arab region. I wanted to understand what is going on around sex and the taboos around sex and how is that affecting our response to HIV.
But then I realized that beyond the actual sort of sexual act in that very sort of narrow biological medical definition of sex, that if one looked at sexuality more broadly, the attitudes and behaviors and beliefs and values—they actually give you a lens onto society. Because it interacts with politics and with economics and with religion and with tradition and gender and generations. At the end of the day, if you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.
Q: In Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood, we are seeing theocrats using the rhetoric of independence and rebellion to take power.
A: The conservative attitudes towards sexuality [actually extend] beyond the Islamic conservatives. I can just give you one example: I was down in Tahrir Square at the center of the uprisings. This is in 2011. I was talking to young protestors about their fight for political freedom, and I asked them: “Do you think this political freedom could ever lead to sexual freedom?” One of the young women I spoke to—quite a highly educated literature student, but from a rural area—she said: “Yes, absolutely. There are some people, they have a free sexual life. I believe in this. Paris 1968, ‘It is forbidden to forbid.’ I wish we could have that here.”
So she took me across the square to where people were camped out—and these were the real diehard protestors; they were fighting and literally dying in the streets around us, fighting the security forces—and I met one of her fellow students, a liberal guy. I asked him: “Do you think that this political freedom will lead to sexual freedom?” And he said to me: “No, no, no, no! This is not the freedom we are fighting for. The political freedom is one thing. We are Arabs. We are Muslims. We believe in the marriage institution.” This is a guy who is on the cutting edge of the liberal movement!
That’s the citadel of which I speak in my book, that the only socially accepted context for sexual life is family-approved, religiously approved, state-registered matrimony. So you don’t have to be an Islamic conservative to adhere to these conservative values. That’s why I think the rise to political prominence of the Islamists in Egypt is actually, in a funny way, not a bad thing for those of us who are interested in sexual rights, because these conservative currents during the long years of dictatorship, this rise of Islamic fundamentalism, was happening under the table. You couldn’t challenge it; we didn’t really talk about it. Now it is on the table, and we are discussing it very openly. We are starting to talk about who speaks for Islam, what is the role of Islam in public life.
That’s absolutely key, because today we have these very narrow interpretations of Islam—on a whole variety of issues, not just sex. But there have been times in history when we have had much more open thinking about all matters, including the role of women, including sexual issues. We have gravitated to this very narrow place, and this is largely to do with the rise of Islamic conservatism, but now it is on the table. We are talking about it and people are challenging it now, and this is a very important step forward for achieving sexual rights in the years to come.
(Interview continues below video.)
Q: What’s the role of economic freedom here? The stories we sometimes hear in the news about the Arab world focused on very rich people, very powerful people, and their sexual crimes or peccadilloes, but my sense is that you are more interested in the sexuality of the middle classes or the people who want to be middle-class.