Jaipur: When women writers from Islamic countries discuss sexuality and erotic poems, taboos and male dominance, and mull over breaking free from conservative norms, the audience is bound to be large.
At the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) Saturday, the hall of the "Baithak" venue was flooded with people eager to hear discussions at the session "Behind the Veil: Women Writers of the Islamic World".
Even Urvashi Bhutalia, feminist and publisher, who moderated the session, was surprised see so many people in attendance, eager to hear how stifled voices from conservative countries are breaking stereotypical norms and getting away from veils, to tell their own unique tales.
Bhutalia was in conversation with four authors: Shereen Feki, author of "Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World", author of "The Exiled" Fariba Hachtroudi, Somalia-born Nadifa Mohamed, and Turkish author Bejan Matur.
"I have spent five years in the Arab world talking about sex. Many of you might think this is the best job in the world," Feki told the audience here, in a lighter vein.
Feki`s parents moved to Canada and as she was born there, so she never felt any connection with the Arab world till the September 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in the US.
"I had never thought much about the Arab world till 9/11. It was then that I decided to know more about it," said Feki, who was a journalist and has covered HIV-related stories from the Arab world.
"There were so many taboos around sex that it was hard to tackle," she said.
Her book throws light on the sexual preferences of women from conservative Arab countries, where women opened up to her and talked about their sex lives. Though she did speak to men about it too, they have not featured in the book.
And she strongly believes that the behaviour of society is strongly related also to what happens behind the closed doors of bedrooms.
"Sexuality is a rich way of looking at society. What happens inside bedrooms is related to outside life. If we don`t allow freedom in private lives, it won`t be achieved in the public sphere," she said.
Elaborating how a free body is an essential ingredient of a free mind was Hachtroudi, who left Iran when she was 12. After writing extensively on Iran for three years, this journalist felt it was necessary for her to be inside the country to feel what it was like, back home.
"I was lucky, my friends say. Some say I was a fool, because I chose to take the Afghanistan border to enter Iran. But once I was there, it changed my life," she told the audience.
"The power men want to have over women is the biggest obstacle in our society. Prostitution in Iran began around 1985-86 when the economy was crippled by war (Iran-Iraq)," she added, saying she has written erotic poetry.
Another thing that left women powerless was the decision taken during the Iranian Revolution, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took away women`s right to participate in politics.
"During (Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi )Shah`s regime, women had power to vote and they were in the sphere of politics," she said.
She said she is now spearheading a programme to encourage people to express themselves, creatively.
While it is believed that a country becomes modern by adapting to western ways, Feki emphasised the need to "change thinking" to be modern.
"Modernity is not an economic weapon, but a system of changing thinking and growing," she said.