Sex and society in a changing Arab world

April 17, 2013

By Alexandra Glynn

There’s nothing like the subject of sex to get a room of adults giggling, as Shereen El Feki proved when she came to talk about her new book, Sex and the Citadel at The Frontline Club on Tuesday 16 April.

Speaking to columnist and broadcaster, Jenni Russell, the former Economist writer and Al Jazeera correspondent talked about her book, for which she travelled around the Arab world to try to understand the region’s relationship with one of their most taboo subjects – sex.

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Shereen El Faki     Photo: Alexandra Glynn

El Feki enlightened the audience to a surprising history lesson of sex in the Arab region:

“The West looks at the Arab world and sees it as incredibly buttoned up and intolerant when it comes to sex. But if we go back a millennium, the criticism of Arab cultures and Islamic culture was that it was too sexed up. Even the Prophet Muhammad used to talk extensively about sex,” she said.

“This is important to know because when young people ask today, ‘Why do we have the taboos we have today?’, they are often confronted with religious conservatives who say you can’t talk about this, it’s against our traditional values as Muslims. My message in the book is that when Arabs were at the height of their civilisation; their political, economical and social power, they were at ease in their sexual skin. And that is not a coincidence.”

Explaining why she decided to address this issue, El Feki revealed the darker side to her project:

“Because of my background in HIV, I wanted to understand what was going on [the Middle East, along with North Africa, has one of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in the world]. I was being told there is no HIV, yet I was meeting whole families with HIV. It became very clear to me that sex was the stumbling block, and the taboos around sex were a huge obstacle to what is really an emerging epidemic in the Arab region.”

She explains that the ‘Citadel’ of her title was the institution of marriage and how it is the only socially acceptable context for sex:

“The problem is increasing numbers of people in the Arab world don’t fit in the citadel,” she points out. “The problem for these women is they wanted to be able to express themselves in the bedroom, they wanted more, and yet they felt conflicted. Because they thought if they showed some spark they would be seen as bad women.”

When Russell asked if attitudes towards sex could change, and if so how, El Feki emphasised it would be a very hard and long process:

 “Changing this attitude towards sex is going to require a raft of modifications, both in the public sphere and also in personal lives. Legal reform is going to be key, laws across the Arab region are deeply discriminatory towards women. But changing the law is not enough, the absolute key is education – especially in the home.”

“I’m often asked, do you expect to see a sexual revolution in the Arab region, and my answer is that we haven’t even seen a political one yet. So if we’re not seeing this dramatic break from the past in politics, we’re certainly not going to see it in sex because it involves so many other dimensions,” she added.

When asked by an audience member if this possibility of change could draw parallels with the sexual revolution in the West, she explained it wasn’t that simple:

 “There is this culture of confession in the Western world and the ability to speak openly about sex, firstly with religious confession, then in a medical context, and now with the media”.

“What’s different in Muslim cultures is that we don’t have a culture of confession – we have the reverse. We are conjoined as Muslims to conceal our sins. The problem is privacy means we don’t talk about issues we need to talk about now.”

You can watch the event below and purchase the book here.



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