Sex in the Arab world

Updated: Jan 22, 2014, 13:16 PM IST

Ruchi Kumar

Jaipur: British author of Egyptian origin, Shereen el Feki, discusses sexuality in the Arab regions, India’s historical struggle for sexual freedoms and her controversial book ‘Sex and the Citadel’

When British author Shereen el Feki began writing her book ‘Sex and the Citadel’, she wanted to help outsiders understand what’s going on in the Arab region. By the time she finished it, the book was as much for them as it was for the Arabs themselves. “Arab people often feel isolated with their problems, confusions and ignorance without realising that there are other people around them who have devised innovative ways to tackle some of these problems,” she explains. Shereen’s book Sex and the Citadel deals with these problems and presents real world solutions to issues of sexuality in the Arab world.

“There are so many taboos around sex that one would imagine it to be very hard to research a book like mine. But it wasn’t difficult to get people to talk about sex, as much as it was to get them to stop talking about it,” narrates Shereen. The author spent a good part of the last decade reconnecting with her Arab roots, while working in the public health sector in the Middle East. Her dual-identity of being a foreigner and a part-Egyptian Muslim worked to her advantage. “Often, the reticence women have talking about sex is because they are afraid of being judged. But they also have the idea that western sexual lives have no judgement and no censor. So the fact that I looked western was a huge advantage, including with men who spoke with much frankness. And, being half-Egyptian and Muslim allowed women to feel comfortable talking to me because they felt I knew where they were coming from,” she explains.

Shereen’s keen interest in wanting to understand people was what set her on the path of exploring a controversial subject against a conservative set up. She elaborates, “It became clear to me during my research that sex is about not just things going on inside the bedroom, but also everything going on outside. I realised that this will tell me more about people’s lives and not just their sexual lives.”

But, of course, what she discovered proved to be a sordid tale of human apathy. “There is an enormous amount of fear, stigma, discrimination and ignorance for those living with HIV; and even more so with vulnerable groups who are seen as indulging in illegal activities such as homosexuality or drug abuse,” she shares. She narrates the typical response of women diagnosed with HIV in the Arab region, “Woman gets married. She is expected to produce a baby by her first anniversary so she gives birth. The child is diagnosed with HIV and by extension so is the woman, who most probably got it from her husband, the one socially accepted sex i.e. marriage. Yet, these women are more discriminated against, and seen as bad women!”

Shereen adds that these discriminatory attitudes are prevalent even among the educated like doctors and nurses who sometimes refuse to touch pregnant women with HIV.

The much talked about Arab spring didn’t change anything either. “The Arab Spring wasn’t a revolution. If by revolution, you mean a dramatic break with the past that’s not what we saw. Politics takes a very long time to change, and thus sexual attitudes take even longer because they are so complex,” she opines.

Of course, similar attitudes are reflected in India, notwithstanding India’s recent judgement on Section 377. Commenting on the subject Shereen says, “It is a statutory tale for us in the Arab region where in many countries we are still stumbling along towards democracy.”

Shereen has often faced criticism for her ideas, “So many of these attitudes on sex are couched in narrow interpretations of Islam and those are going to be hard to change. But they are also driven by economics. Youth unemployment is at 30% in nearly all Arab nations and women have very little employment, so until economics change there will not be much change in the family structure or with young people being able to assert their rights.”

Despite this, Shereen remains cautiously optimistic of progress in the Arab regions. “It will be the test of my thesis, to be able to see my book on the coffee table of the women I interviewed and have their teenage daughters visit my website and send in their questions. If that were to come to pass, in the next five years, I would consider it a job well done.”