27 May, 2013Issue 22.3Politics & SocietyReligionThe Middle EastWorld Politics

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Mores and Moralities

Harriet Fitch Little

Sex and the CitadelShereen El Feki
Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World
Chatto & Windus, 2013
368 pages
ISBN 978-0701183165


“In the Arab world, sex is the opposite of sport. Everyone talks about football, but hardly anyone plays it. But sex ¬≠– everyone is doing it, but nobody wants to talk about it.” This pithy insight from an Egyptian gynaecologist interviewed in Sex and the Citadel is an anomaly which the book goes a long way towards correcting. Having worked for years on health and social issues, Shereen El Feki’s resolution to consider sex as a subject in its own right came when she was doing research for The Economist into worldwide HIV rates. On the surface, the Arab region looked like a bubble of comparative calm. Infection and transmission rates were low. Then she started talking to people—whole families being silently devastated by the disease—and she grasped the depth of the chasm separating the statistics about sex from the reality.

Burned by her experiences at The Economist, the author rejects data as the foundation for her work. Instead, Sex and the Citadel is told as a series of interlocking encounters with a strong narrative voice. Roaming the Arab region with a dictaphone, El Feki interviews everyone from the “desperate housewives” of Cairo and prostitutes of Tunisia to cross-dressers and the transgender community. This is, she tells us, the “story of those who are trying to break free,” complimented where possible by hard facts.

El Feki is the product of an East-meets-West upbringing. She is half Egyptian, half Welsh and was raised in Canada. Her most vital statistic however is her religion: El Feki is Muslim, and she sets out to reclaim sex from a generation of theologians who have shunned it as “shorthand for a Western social agenda”. Sex, for El Feki, is not just okay in Islam, it is integral and paired with spirituality in a way which she believes has been lost in the West. Almost without exception, the people she interviews seem to agree, including one Egyptian sex therapist who explains to her that it was only after discovering Islam in adulthood that she felt compelled to take up her almost unheard of occupation. The short distance between Mosque and bedroom is the most pervasive theme in El Feki’s work. From a beautician in Cairo who recites verses from the Qur’an to assist couples who’ve lost their spark, to prostitutes who preface intercourse with the phrase “I give you the right to own me”; it seems that no matter how deep you dig, Islam remains a powerful frame of reference.

An insistence on the compatibility of sex and Islam sees El Feki devote significant energy to emphasising the bewildering breadth of interpretations that exist in Islamic law regarding almost every sexual dispute on the menu. Disagreement about anal sex—which is considered haram (forbidden) by Sunni Muslims but permitted by some Shi’i authorities—is a good example. Debate centres around a verse in the Qur’an: “your women are like your fields, so go into your fields whichever way you like.” Some scholars see this as an “anything goes” sanctioning of the practice, whereas others argue that the metaphor of fields is clearly linked to farming and procreation, which by extension makes anal sex haram. Scholars who sanction masturbation come at it through equally tenuous analogies. Those who endorse it compare it to the permissibility of breaking the fast during Ramadan in case of illness, suggesting that it is better to indulge alone than risk the impure and dangerous pooling of semen in the testes. The one subject where El Feki accepts that room for manoeuvre is more limited is the case of same sex relations—she acknowledges that when authorities condemn homosexuality “they bring the full weight of scripture with them”. Still, she is keen to flag up the existence of both scholars and private individuals who are intent on carving out space for homosexuality within Islam. Olfa Youssef, a Tunisian professor interviewed by El Feki, suggests we are too quick to see what we expect to see in the Qur’an, pointing out that at no point does it call sodomy by its name. She suggests that verses popularly seen to condemn the practice could easily be interpreted as referring to a wide range of other things, if only the popular will existed to do so. We have blindly accepted a patriarchal filtering of the Qur’an, Youssef argues, which has its roots in a society ill at ease with the idea of men giving, rather than simply receiving, sexual pleasure.

El Feki sees Islam as an omnipresent (but always malleable) juggernaut, an impression which holds fast when sexual politics bleeds into politics proper. “Shari’a is a text that can be interpreted in the sense of sexual liberty or in the sense of repression,” one Moroccan sociologist reflects. “If the politicians decide on sexual liberty then the scholars will find a way.” At present, El Feki believes that the regional trend is towards lamentably strict interpretations of Shari’a and she does not shy away from highlighting the many occasions when sex is used as an overt tool of subjugation by men, both at home and in parliament. She details the horrors of female circumcision—which affects 90% of Egypt’s female population under 50—as well as anecdotal evidence of gender bias, such as one “desperate housewife” story of a woman dragged violently from her honeymoon bed because her husband deemed her arousal and initiative to be signs of past promiscuity. However, one of the biggest achievements of her analysis is its nuance. Sex is unquestionably the “dense transfer point of power” that Foucault branded it, but that doesn’t mean that the power it exerts can be captured in a simple “oppressor” and “oppressed” equation. When sex is used as a tool of control, she suggests, it is often an unconscious resource. Turning to the revolution in Egypt, El Feki points to anecdotal evidence that marital relationships became less violent during the uprising. She suggests that political disempowerment under Mubarak led men to lash out in the domains where they felt powerful.

This example is typical of the careful way in which El Feki approaches Arab men’s difficult relationship with sex. “Being a man is a privilege,” one interviewee remarks, “but it’s also a terrific pressure.” The most striking example of this is perhaps the obsessive concern with male impotence and erectile dysfunction in Egypt. As well as Viagra being commonly used as baksheesh (bribery), El Feki discusses the widely believed conspiracy theory that the streets of Cairo are awash with secret Israeli agents wearing “neutering belts” in an attempt secretly to castrate the male population.

El Feki’s analysis of the 2011 uprising in Egypt, which bookends the text, adopts the same measured tone. Although she believes that the Arab Spring certainly benefited from a generation well-versed in using social media to circumvent societal taboos, she does not hold with the school of thought which sees revolutionary fervour as a direct expression of sexual frustration. Equally, she guards against making great claims about the potential of revolutions to transform engrained sexual mores. The brief unity of purpose between young and old in Tahrir Square did not, she insists, resolve deeply entrenched differences in the outlooks of the two generations.

El Feki’s narrative is almost uniformly even-handed without ever feeling cautious or reserved. Perhaps the only subject where readers might feel that the inquiry could push deeper is her forthright insistence on a vision of the Arab world of yore being a hotbed of tolerance and promiscuity, on a par with the modern West. She paints a picture of a world where outlandish sexual practices and even cross-dressers were well-documented and relatively unproblematic aspects of society. Despite El Feki’s own admission that it is hard to reconcile Islam with homosexuality, she insists that in the forgotten annals of Arab erotica lesbian relations were “analysed, anatomized, and very often appreciated”. It is of course difficult to prove or disprove this version of history, but El Feki might have done well to engage with the academic arguments which flag up reasons to be cautious. Although she supports Edward Said’s theory of orientalism, which highlighted how colonialists reduced Arabs to a parody of lust and iniquity, she does not always use this theory to question the authenticity of the sources which she uses as evidence of past promiscuity. Instead she leans on the travel writing of Flaubert—an “orientalist” par excellence—to make the case for Islam’s erstwhile hedonism. Similarly, the book does not tackle Said’s subsequent argument that Arab authors often appropriated the stereotype of the “lusty Arab” in their own writing.

This excess is a product of the same things which make this book exciting; El Feki’s questions are posed and answered from within Islam, without the argument ever feeling strained. She speaks with the confidence of an insider, but treats religion as an empowering resource in the quest for sexual liberty rather than as an obstacle to be creatively circumvented. “If you want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedroom,” El Feki advises. If you can’t stomach the airfare (or legal ramifications) of such voyeurism, then reading this book is undoubtedly the next best thing.

Harriet Fitch Little read Social and Political Science at Newnham College, Cambridge.