Sex And The Citadel, Shereen El Feki

If you have ever wondered about the sex lives – or shall we say the sex secrets? – of the Arabs, then this book by Shereen El Feki is for you. In her subject choice of the intimate lives of the Arabs at this unusual and historic time of political revolution across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, she comes with a hefty mission as well as vision, theory and a hypothesis regarding the sexual future of the people of the MENA region.

It is one brave lady to open the lid onto something that is quite natural for any human being to do but that which can also be riddled with a deep well of personal or – as in the case of the Arabs – collective guilt, doubt, shame, confusion and misunderstandings.

Despite the challenges, she undertook her research into the field and spoke with many a man and woman, as well as experts in the sex and intimacy department who include: activists and campaigners for the right to a private life, doctors who deal with women in search of abortion or hymen repair surgery, lawyers, academics and other key individuals who are trying to make a difference through the media and other spheres.

In doing this, she probed and asked every single person in her path and pursued their contacts too. In the process of writing the book, she also unearthed a long and distinguished history of Arabic writing on sex that only in recent centuries has all but been buried. (It is one of her many hopes to reclaim the eroticism of the Arabic language itself and usher in a new period where sex and sex talk can become part of a more open society).

What El Feki Discovered

El-Feki discovered that sex is happening for the Arabs and their bedrooms are just as steaming hot and passionate as with any other people. The Arabs are practicing every type of sex and position, but with the one exception that the Arabs have a strong preference to keeping things under wraps about what they get up to in private and will go to extraordinary ingenious lengths to either deny it or find ways to justify it behind closed doors.

This type of attitude and behavior is down to fear of the wrath of the religious and traditional establishments, who rule that only in marriage is sex to be sanctioned and allowed. But beneath the veneer of piety, married couples in the Arab world are complaining about their lot, in similar ways to others.

Sex and Marriage

A whole chapter is dedicated to marriage, where we discover that both the men and women have issues. Whereas female virginity is still the sacred symbol of a family’s honor, sex outside the holy frame is very much frowned upon and illegal in many a circumstance for both sexes; and punishment too can happen DIY community style.

For both, there is the heavy burden of haram in stepping over the cultural or religious limits; but, lo and behold the Arab woman who challenges such boundaries! And divorced women in particular are made to feel it as a source of shame and dishonor.

But like in any other society, the genders feel at cross-wires and wonder if they come from one separate Mars and another Venus. Whilst the men complain their women are not giving enough, the women are saying they don’t know what their men want or mean by what they say they want.

To spice up their sex lives also, the Arabs are just as open to experimenting with sex and seduction; using lingerie for a feminine effect, eager to see Western style sex accessories, watching porn, as well as swallowing the Viagra pill for lasting pleasure. Others also believe in the powerful effect of white and black magic, spiritual sexual healing and Arabic medicine.

With the added social pressure on young married couples to give birth quickly – because it blessed and commended by the religion – El Feki also brings up the Arab’s attitudes towards IVF, abortion, the pill, sperm and egg donation, surrogacy and the fatwas that sometimes determine what are acceptable sexual practices or not.

Most curious for this reader were some connections or themes I was able to make out from reading the full book. These are: Sex and the LGBT community, Sex and Violence, Sex and “Unofficial” Marriage, Sex and Youth as well as Sex and Politics

Sex and the LGBT

In Dare to be Different, for example, El Feki gets in touch with alternative sexual behavior and orientations. As a rule in Arabic countries, the LGBT community has to live in hiding and underground; with the exception of Beirut, Lebanon where there is a little scope to socialize, gather and party in public.

Speaking to them, she finds out how many are facing danger in coming out and being ostracized by their families and the culture. But, fortunately, she also tracks down a number of support initiatives tackling the problem to offer LGBT members free sex advice, community support, health and psychological help.

Sex and Violence

In terms of sex and violence, an astonishing figure is given in the book, that a third of married women in Egypt are at the receiving end of domestic violence, with ten per cent also experiencing sexual abuse. Although there are efforts to help women with shelters, hotlines, counseling and legal services in some countries, a troubling common attitude is that a man can do what he likes should she misbehave.

There are other violent elements regarding sex in the region, including the stress and trauma a girl may have to endure by turning to hymen restoration surgery or dangerous botched up abortions in a desperate attempt to be seen as still virgin on her wedding night. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is also touched upon and the embarrassing ordeal of ‘dukhla’ that a bride may have to go through.

Sex and Youth

Sex and the generally disaffected youth of the region is another theme. With this group caught between economic straits, religious confusion and political frustrations, they are unable to afford marriage for halal sex and their hormones are raging with no proper outlet to unleash their energies.

Plenty of dynamics at play here, with the Internet becoming a new centre-stage for expression and with blogging, social networking, and other forms of new media more open about sex and talking about it without censure. On the other hand, there is a big public sexual harassment problem persistent in the region; where even the dolce hegabbanas (young and pretty girls who wear the hijab but with colorful clothes ensembles) are still molested on the streets with the police themselves at times complicit.

Sex and ‘Unofficial” Marriages

Most unusual for this reader was learning about the long menu or choice of “unofficial” marriages (I counted at least five) that people resort to in order to circumvent or outsmart the cultural conventions or the religious restrictions about sex outside of “official” marriage.

In effect, these are all secret types of marital sexual union with some used only by Shia Muslims and others by Sunnis as well. A most horrendous arrangement is the zawaj misyaf. Popular with Gulf male tourists going to Egypt for their Summer holidays, they are but a form of prostitution of poor young girls, done with the knowledge and consent of the father with money exchanged to pay for the short length of time brokered.

And there is so much more in the book but I don’t wish to completely spoil it.

Measure of Success

The true measure of El Feki’s success will be whether or not Sex and the Citadel further encourages more public debate and understanding about sex and the sexual lives of the people in the region and if the book is translated in Arabic.

Another important measure will be whether or not El Feki’s work can convince Arab governments to take the bold step of facilitating better and more thorough sexual surveys of their people to bring all out to the open, as was done by the Kinsey Report in the 1940s and 10950s America. This would at least fill in the big void she came across on her five-year journey into the MENA world.

Her call is very understandable, so that useful facts and information can be deciphered, given and shared with the people; chief among them the youngsters who need to be able to make better and more responsible sexual decisions and have more freedom to choose how they wish to conduct their private lives.

She does offer some hope that the recent political uprisings might encourage a better attitude towards sex and a drive to guarantee the right to a private life without state or religious intrusion. Referring to the ‘transformation of intimacy’ and ‘greater democratization of personal relationships,’ she is optimistic this will take place in the near future.

This reader personally, I wonder how one can reverse a deeply ingrained cultural tendency to sweep things under the carpet? The Arabs will continue to keep it all in the bedroom and in between the sheets. Do I recommend this book? Yes, it needs to be essential reading for all the Arabs and must be translated as soon as possible.

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Note: This article was first published circa January 2014