“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.

A: The book largely focuses on middle-class voices, but there are certainly people from all elements of the social spectrum. One of the reasons there’s mainly middle-class voices is that I wanted in the book to not just focus on problems. We know there’re lots of sexual problems in the Arab world. They’re in the news all the time. One of the things I tried to do in relation to the problems is to assemble the evidence—what do we know empirically, in real serious research terms about sexual life in the Arab world? But what I tend to focus on in the book are solutions, people who are trying to find their way out of these constraints. And those innovators tend to come from the educated classes, the middle classes.

Certainly I was, for example, meeting with sex workers across the region. These are often desperately poor women. This is not a lifestyle choice for them. They have no other economic choice, and this gets to your point.

Economics is a real driver of sexual behavior anywhere in the world. It can take very explicit forms. For example, there is a type of prostitution in Egypt—it’s known as summer marriage—in which wealthy visitors from the Gulf States will come. They do a lot of shopping in Egypt, great for the economy. One of the things these male tourists often buy is a girl, and there are particular villages near Cairo in which girls are supplied for summer marriage and in Islam.

Sex outside of marriage is adultery and it is haram, it’s forbidden, so they give this form of sex work an Islamic cover. They write a contract which sort of checks all the boxes in terms of marriage, dubious intent aside, and they enter into these affairs. The girls spend maybe two weeks with the men. The men go home and the girls go back to their families. It is a source of tremendous angst for many of these women. That’s driven by economics and their parents are essentially prostituting their girls for the money.

Q: The girls or the women who do summer marriages don’t call themselves prostitutes?

A: No. Even frank sex workers would never self-identify as sex workers, in my experience, in the Arab region.

Q: What word would you use?

A: You wouldn’t refer to it.

As a side story, in Arabic, we have now sort of come down to quite a restricted vocabulary around sex, which is one of the problems, because most of the language people use is from the street. This is really inhibiting for women because the language is considered to be vulgar. Women have a lot of trouble talking about sexuality because the burden of the stigma and the taboo falls on them, then you add to that they don’t even have a language to speak about sex in a respectful manner.

What’s interesting is that a thousand years ago we used to have whole dictionaries of sex in Arabic. One of these medieval dictionaries—imaginatively entitled, forgive me, The Language of Fucking—included over a thousand verbs for “to have sex.” Now we’re so restricted, people don’t even want to talk about it! Many people in the Arab region actually feel more comfortable speaking about sex in English or in French—or in Hebrew, if they’re Palestinians in Israel—than they do in Arabic. So often these women, they’ll call themselves workers, for example, but they won’t actively identify as sex workers.

Q: What about men?

A: It’s a whole spectrum of sexuality there. Some men in the region most certainly do self-identify as gay, and yet a lot of men who have sex with other men would completely reject those labels. They just don’t feel that they apply to them. Their sexual identity is much more fluid in the Arab region.

As one very cogent and really articulate queer activist in Lebanon told me: “What are you talking about, Shereen, about sexual identities in the Arab region? We don’t even have individual identities.” She said: “I am on the record of the government as the daughter of my father and if I were to marry, I would become the wife of my husband. I don’t exist as an individual. How do you expect me to have a sexual identity?”

It really comes to the core of the difficulty of achieving the essence of sexual rights, which is a happy, satisfying, pleasurable sexual life free of coercion and discrimination and violence. If you don’t have those individual freedoms recognized and respected by the state, it’s very difficult to achieve them in the context of a patriarchal family. We have miles to go before any of this is conceivable in most of the Arab world.

Q: A lot of sex workers here in the States come from other countries to work. They’ll send money back home, and the family becomes dependent on the sex worker. She or he has a little power. Does that scenario exist yet in Egypt or in other parts of the Arab world?

A: Let me tell you a story which is not from sex but illustrates that dynamic very clearly. One of the young women I met in Egypt, her name is Imani, and she comes from the conservative south of the country. Imani is a tour guide and she makes quite a lot of money. As a consequence of that, she’s actually the main breadwinner for her entire family. Her father and her brothers and sisters are dependent upon her. One day a young man whom she had met through a friend came to the parents, brought his parents, wanted to marry Imani, and her parents said no. She’s in her late 20s and although she has all the financial power in the family in terms of the earning capacity, she has none of the control over her own life. Years passed. They kept arguing with the parents. She wanted to marry him. They said no. And one of the reasons they said no was that they didn’t want to lose her income; it would go to the new couple.

So she and her clandestine fiancé decided to take matters into their own hands. They traveled to Cairo and they had what’s known as an urfi marriage. This is a customary marriage and depending on whom you ask, it is Islamically permissible or not. There are some scholars who will say that these marriages are permissible, and that’s why she had it. Because to her, as a practicing Muslim, it was inconceivable that she would have sex outside of marriage. She needed a marriage framework. Yet when I asked her, “But Imani, you have the financial power, why do you not just get married in defiance of your parents?,” she said, “I cannot do that. It is not my reputation. It is my family’s reputation and it is my father’s reputation. He is the great man at the mosque. If I were to go against him, they would say he had an impolite, a disobedient daughter. I cannot go against my family.” That’s a very clear illustration that having the money doesn’t give you the power, especially if you’re a woman.

Q: I was wondering if you could comment about the state of political activism for gay men and lesbians in Egypt, and how it’s been affected by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

A: We have crushing homophobia in most of the Arab region. There are these extraordinary groups of young activists. They tend to be under age 40. They tend to be more educated. They speak very good English. They are connected to the wider world of LGBTQ activism. What’s really interesting about all these groups—and they are a minority of a minority—but when you talk to them, they know chapter and verse the history of the gay rights movement in the West. And they can tell you with extreme precision why they think these will not work in the Arab world.

They want something completely different. They do not accept sexual identity politics. They say, “What is the point of us fighting for the rights of a tiny minority irrespective of the crushing homophobia if we do not achieve justice and freedom and equality and dignity for everyone, not just minorities, for everyone coming out of these oppressive systems?” So it’s a very different conceptualization of how you would go about getting achieving rights and achieving space.

In my experience, most people who have sex with their own sex or are transgendered are not looking for the freedom to come out. They want the freedom to stay in, and live their lives behind closed doors and do as they choose. They are looking for privacy. 

One of the interesting experiences I’ve had is working with religious leaders and men who have sex with men. I was part of a project that over the course of many years brought these two, you know, chalk and cheese groups together. We did this under the aegis of HIV. If we wanted to talk about gay rights, absolutely no way would we get religious leaders to come to the table. But this was a rich mix of Shia, Sunni, and also Christian clergy from across the denominations. At the beginning, there was huge suspicion, and particularly the religious leaders had all these extraordinary ideas about these men—that they were rapists and pedophiles and that they were indulgent and debauched. They had no idea of the reality of these men’s lives.

What was most interesting about this sort of process of accommodation is that one of the religious leaders I talk about in the book said: “Look, you know what, these men are our brothers. I want to find a way to reach out to them. I cannot tell them that their behavior is halal, that it is permitted”—although as a side point, there are some Islamic scholars now elsewhere who are actually questioning what the canonical texts are really telling us about homosexuality in Islam, but that sort of thinking isn’t catching on in the Arab world as yet—but the point of commonality was privacy.

In Islam, we have a real emphasis on your business is your business. It is a sin to spy on someone else, and if you want to accuse someone of a crime, you need to have four eyewitnesses or an uncoerced confession. So in this discussion about privacy, for example, you can think that there might be a way of accommodating men who have sex with men within the context of Islam. This goes back to the point that there are alternative interpretations within Islam. It’s not a monolith. When the conservatives give their point of view, they present it like there is no alternative, but that’s simply not the case.

Q: You said that marriage is the citadel. What is sex like inside of a typical marriage?

A: It’s a very good question and it’s hard to answer. We don’t have a Kinsey Report, we don’t have a Hite Report, we don’t really have any basis for answering that question. I call for it in my book. I can only give you anecdote.

In my experience, in talking to couples, women are frustrated. Let me turn that around actually. I don’t want to talk about it in negative terms. I want to talk about it in terms of longing. They are longing for better communication with their husbands. They’re longing for more spark in their marriage. They want romance. The men I met—and, again, these are snapshots; please don’t generalize from this or extrapolate from this—but they were frustrated. They wanted more, and yet when their wives tried to show some spark, they were horrified.

One of these instances I talk about in the book. A young woman was reading up before marriage—this was her big night—and and when she initiated some activity, her husband hauled her out of bed and made her swear on a Koran that she had never had relations before marriage. A bit of a downer for the rest of the night’s proceedings.

In my experience, there is a sort of conflict going on. People want more, but they’re not sure how to achieve more. But once we get through this very tricky transitional period—and no one’s certain how long that’s going to last—I think we are heading into a better place, because people can now start talking about these issues.

The one positive thing that’s coming out of all of this is a willingness to speak openly now about sexual violence. Ten years ago when a woman was raped, she would never speak out. Now people are coming to the fore. The key at the end of the day is switching this increasing openness about sex to talking not just about sex as a crisis or a scandal or a tragedy, but sex as something positive and sex as a real force for empowerment of men and women, for well-being. There was an ability a thousand years ago to find the fun in sex and to talk about it as a source of power for men and women, and we have lost that. I hope that we can recapture that in the decades to come. 

Q: Can you share any experiences in which you were surprised?

A: A couple of years ago there was a Lebanese TV talk show that had an episode on sexual life in the Arab region. A man from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, gave up a glimpse of his sexual life. It was tame by Western standards, for sure. It was almost girlishly discreet. The day after, there were thousands of complaints to the governor of Jeddah. He was sacked from his job at Saudi Arabian Airlines because he said that his fantasy was the Mile High Club. The fact he worked on the ground staff was neither here nor there. They sacked him, and he was sentenced to I think five years in prison and a thousand lashes.

The sentence was commuted, but what was most interesting is that he was not being punished for what he did. He was being punished for what he said he had done. We don’t have a culture of confession in Islam. We are enjoined to conceal our sins.

When we have this gap between appearance and reality, so many problems come in, whether it’s sexual violence, sexual dissatisfaction within marriage, or HIV/AIDS. We need to find a way to talk about these things. My argument in the book is that a thousand years ago—not that we go back to that period, it was a different time, I’m not a sexual Salafi here—but our ancestors seemed to have an ability to reconcile Islam with the needs of the flesh. They were able to talk about it and generate information. We need to recapture that spirit.