Sex in the Arab World

Author and activist Shereen El Feki on whether the Arab Spring can produce a Summer of Love

“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.

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  • Caleb Turberville||

    An Arab Jefferson Airplane?

  • Mike M.||

    This stupid article again? I'd be embarrassed to print such laughable rubbish after the events of the last couple of years.

  • wwhorton||

    I thought she made some interesting observations, but I think she gets a little too wrapped up in her premise. Sexual mores might be an indicator of other stuff going on in the culture, but it's not a driving force, and it's not causal. In other words, all things being equal, you can't just airlift condoms and porn to Saudi Arabia and expect an Arab Enlightenment to occur the next morning any more than you could produce the same result by opening a Budweiser brewery or a comic book store.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    If you really want to know people, start by looking in their bedrooms

    Around here that'll get you arrested.

  • Almanian!||

    Thank you for the boob shot. Nice cleavage.

  • wwhorton||

    Seconded. That's absent from the print version, and I was hoping this was some sort of like subscriber reward "digital bonus" thing.

  • Sunken Idaho||

    What? Decapitations by rose stem isn't sexy to you?

  • Mike M.||

    No kidding dude. I swear, the willing ignorance of reality and suspension of disbelief that goes on with these cosmos on certain topics is fucking mind-boggling.

  • MWG||

    Drink!

  • ||

    This article again? Hard up for content are we? I refrained last time but not now: Cleavage!

  • chexsystem||

    How happy to read your post, I hope I can write the article the same wonderful as you.

  • Agammamon||

    Wait, where's the link to your blog that's nothing but a list of keywords?

    I love those things!

  • Brett L||

    Wasn't Sex and the Citadel a tell-all about buggery at the military academy?

  • Ray||

    This is rather self-parodic even by the standards of this publication. Also, don't they chop off women's clitorises in Egypt?

  • Mike M.||

    They most certainly do. The primary purpose of sex in that benighted region of the world is to produce more jihadis prepared to kill and die on behalf of "Allah".

  • mtrueman||

    "They most certainly do"

    I've said it before, the practice has been illegal since 2007. Thanks to the activism of a handful of feminists and doctors. The number of women in Egypt who have been subjected to this mutilation is declining. I'm not sure I understand your attitude - not being able to take 'yes' for an answer. I suspect that it comes from a deeper bigotry and fear which you almost certainly won't admit to or want to discuss. All the same, thanks for sharing.

  • mtrueman||

    "don't they chop off women's clitorises in Egypt?"

    No they don't. At least not legally. Due to the efforts of feminists and physicians this practice was outlawed in Egypt in 2007, I'm sure you'll be happy to learn. There's information on this at wikipedia and other places on the web.

    They were quite courageous, going against some powerful reactionary forces in society, so we should recognize their bravery and the fact that now this mutilation is on the decline in Egypt.

  • Anders||

    It is illegal in Egypt, yes.

    And it still goes on, especially in the smaller communities.

  • mtrueman||

    "And it still goes on"

    I'm sure you are right. But the practice is in decline in Egypt at long last. It is on the rise in USA in spite of its never being legal or socially acceptable.

    "Also, don't they chop off women's clitorises in Egypt?"

    Also they do, but it misses the point and it turns a blind eye to positive developments in Egypt that I would have thought Libertarians would be proud to support. What purpose is served by ignoring the 2007 law? The only one I see is to enable anti arab bigots like Ray to continue spread his talking points.

    Anti Arab bigotry trumping libertarian principles. Another proud moment at Reason magazine.

  • InlineSkate||

    I find the idea amusing, because wouldn't doing that imply that "Allah" fucked up?

  • Curmudgeon44||

    They really should reflect on the notion they disapprove of woman as God made it.

  • NK||

    All this crap about "sexual freedom" is just code for feminism, sexual libertinism, and the rest of the crap culture that has infected the West. This is cosmotarianism, libertarianism combined with advocacy for this crap liberal culture. Seriously, "sex worker?" Political correctness at its worst. Now, the way Arabs treat women is appalling and needs to end, but that doesn't mean they should adopt our culture. Look what it's done to us. And didn't we have this article, like three months ago?

  • InlineSkate||

    You do realize this is a libertarian policy group right?

    Sexual freedom is right up their alley. You want rigid conservative ideals the Heritage foundation is probably a bit more your style.

  • VoluntaryBeatdown||

    Islam is inherently misogynistic. It is also inherently anti-freedom. How in the world are these people able to claim to fight for freedom and liberty while at the same time oppressing women so extremely? The only way they are able to justify this lack of consistency is by using the Koran and Islam itself to degenerate women to sub-human status, to property. Pretty disgusting.

  • Anders||

    I was expecting this to be about man-camel carnal relations.

  • Anders||

    Was she an Arab fired for sexually assaulting a camel?

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