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May 21, 2013

Sex in the Arab World

Scott Stockdale

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In her book Sex in the Citadel: Intimate Life in the Changing Arab World, Canadian author and academic Shereen El-Feki argues that, "We need to think about what's happening in intimate life, because our sexual lives in the Arab world are a reflection of what has gone wrong, over decades, over centuries; and if we don't fix those, it's going to be very hard to achieve the reforms millions of us are hoping to see in economic political and social life and cultural life ."

In a recent CBC Radio interview with Jian Ghomishi, Ms El-Feki said we (Arab activists) are not talking about revolution anywhere in the Arab world because they've had uprisings and new faces but the old way of doing things remains. She said this is because “We don't get change - in particular social change - in the Arab region through confrontation. “

Thus in her book she talks about a lot about groups that are trying to tackle the taboos around sexual life and in every case they try to do it in such a way that works along the grain of culture, tradition and religion.

“At the end of the day, we're talking about evolution, not revolution,” Ms. El-Feki said. 

She said one of the biggest problems those living in the Arab world have in terms of exercising sexual rights – whether one is heterosexual or homosexual – is that they don't even have individual rights: she said they exist as part of a collective, a family or a tribe, for example; and this is reinforced by governments which don't have laws or state systems that recognize people as individuals. And this, in turn, affects people's personal lives.

“If I get in trouble here in Cairo, I can't rely upon the law or the police or the state to respect my rights as an individual. I'm going to have to call my family and hope they can get me out of trouble; and this means my family has a huge say in how I lead my life, inside the bedroom and out.”

While many in the west see Islamic societies as suppressing sex, Ms. El-Feki said if we go back to the long history of Arab civilization -  and in particular the history of Islam - we find incredibly open, informed and often very funny discussion about sex.

“I'm telling you in these writings of Arabic erotic, many of them written by  religious scholars, there isn't anything in them that we didn't touch on in the west until the sexual revolution and beyond; and certainly if one  goes back to the Prophet Mohamed himself, he used to speak extensively and in tremendous detail,  in human detail about aspects of sex, so much so that Christian commentators and Medieval critics of Islam used to point to him and say how can this man be a prophet - he's so sexed up.”

She said Muslims thus have a long history of facing up to sex and celebrating sex within Islam, within a certain context - one of which is marriage - but that changed in the last century.

“Certainly with the rise of fundamentalism there has been a closing down of sex to the point where the only time we talk about it publicly is if it's a tragedy or a disorder or a dysfunction. Of course people talk about sex privately a lot, women with women and men with men ... it's more difficult in public because of a sense of self-censorship and because of state censorship.”

She argues in her book that Muslims have a long history of talking about sex within the context of Islam, so when religious conservatives say you can't talk about these things, you can't talk about sexuality education, or for example abortion because it's unIslamic, Muslims need to stand up and say, “No that's not true, that's not the way it has always been and the narrowness we find ourselves in today has to do with a closing down on politics, economics and social issues.”

The key to Muslims moving forward as they hope they're moving into a new phase of their history with the uprisings of 2011 and beyond, Ms. El-Feki said, is that: “We need to rediscover an ease in our sexual skin that we don't have today, because if we don't find that, if we cannot anchor justice and freedom and equality and dignity in our personal lives, our sexual lives, we're going to find it very hard to achieve them in politics and economics and in the public life as well.”

While acknowledging that the patriarchy is a huge obstacle, she added that Muslims are making steps forward.

“There are young women now speaking out on issues that have to do with sex that they never questioned before, not even when I started this book in 2007 and 2008 and, most notably on the questions of sexual violence.”

She cited the example of Ishas Channa, a grandmotherly Moroccan woman who's trying to find a place for unwed mothers. Ms. El-Feki said if you're not supposed to be having sex before marriage in the Arab world, you're definitely not supposed to be having children, yet Ms. Channa is finding a way to knit children and mothers together and also open a social debate.

Isa Demista, a Palestinian woman living in Israel, who's trying to get sexuality education in schools in very conservative Arab communities is another example she mentioned, and she feels that Egyptian   groups that are trying to reach out to men who have sex with men, or indeed female sex workers, which she characterized as “the most marginalized groups in the sexual universe in the Arab world,” as but some of the positive developments in society.

“There are sexologists on television trying to make sex in marriage more fulfilling, be it within the context of Islam. Nevertheless, there are all these pioneers, all these people trying to find the space. That is why at the end of the day I'm actually quite hopefully in my outlook for sexual culture in the Arab world. It is going to take a generation to find change and we need legal reform and we need education and we need economic change; but I do believe what was unleashed in 2011, that we are moving toward a better place, albeit with lots of U Turns and bumps in the road, but we are still on that journey.”

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