As a half-Egyptian and half-Welsh woman who grew up in Canada, Shereen El Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, makes an unlikely expert on sexuality in the Middle East.
She was awarded a doctorate in molecular immunology at the University of Cambridge and did some health care reporting for The Economist. After trading academe for journalism, El Feki emerged as a prolific speaker and commentator on global health and sexuality issues. She served as vice-chair of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law and a TED fellow with a talk on HIV titled How to Fight an Epidemic of Bad Laws. In an e-mail to Al Fanar, she wrote that “My training in science was invaluable to my subsequent career in writing.”
“In particular,” she added, “studying immunology—which is all about networks and feedback—provided an excellent intellectual framework in which to understand other complex systems, in economics, politics—indeed, sexuality.”
With Sex and the Citadel, El Feki focused her attention on the Arab world, where she spent five years researching sexuality, sexual health and attitudes towards sex. “If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms,” says her Twitter profile.
Called brave by some and criticized by others, the outspoken author says she has never called for a sexual revolution. Instead, in her book, she connects attitudes towards sex with Egypt’s struggle for political identity and the role of religion in society.
With a daring title in a region where even the term “sex educator” can be offensive, the result is a book that traces how Egypt transformed from the country that served as French author Gustave Flaubert’s sexual playground in the 19th century to one witnessing the rise of conservative Islam today where sex before marriage remains taboo.
“The Arab world, once famous in the West for sexual license, envied by some but despised by others, is now widely criticized for sexual intolerance,” El Feki writes.
In Islamist, post-revolutionary Egypt, sex is now “the opposite of sport” as one gynecologist tells El Feki. “Everyone talks about football, but hardly anyone plays it,” he says. “But sex – everyone is doing it, but nobody wants to talk about it.”
When I met Shereen El Feki at a café in an upscale Cairo neighborhood, Heliopolis, our discussion ranged from sexual repression and misleading Arabic-language information on masturbation that suggests it leads to blindness to the potential pitfalls of sexuality education, such as shaming women instead of educating them.
Al Fanar: In the book you stayed away from describing Egypt’s changing sexual mores since the 2011 revolt as a “sexual revolution.” So how would you describe them?
SF: If we’re speaking specifically about Egypt, we’re in an interesting process of negotiation on a daily basis. With a rise to political prominence of Islamic conservatives, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, we’re seeing a much more open debate and discussion about the role of religion in public and personal life, even discussions about atheism.
Al Fanar: Are the people moving with the Islamist trend or against it?
SF: The problem is we don’t have the data. The government is in disarray, so we don’t have good data collection from government agencies and non-governmental bodies are facing delays in getting government permission.
You would not expect a dramatic transition in something as deeply embedded as sexual attitudes and behaviors but there are forces that can induce very short, very immediate reactionary changes like economics, for example.
There is a rising birth rate in Egypt, which is said to be due to increasing difficulty in accessing family planning because a) it’s not a priority for the government and b) the funding. The latter is a problem for a lot of projects related to reproductive health. There have been issues with funding family planning in Egypt for a long time now.
Generally speaking, donors are not all that keen on giving money when it is unclear what position the government will take on foreign funding of NGOs.
Al Fanar: What about Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored courses to prepare people for marriage– what impact do they have?
SF: These marital preparation courses are too little, too late. The average age of marriage for men now is 29 in Egypt. It’s 24 for women. You are waiting until then to give them this information? You are assuming they don’t have relations before then?
Al Fanar: In the book, you discuss a correlation between totalitarianism and sexual repression. Do you see any easing of the norms after the revolution, more discussion of sexual issues?
SF: It depends where you are looking. On the streets, I see many more couples holding hands, being physically demonstrative than I ever saw before the uprising. There are taboos that are breaking.
We are beginning to see public discussions about aspects of sexual rights, particularly freedom from violence, discrimination and coercion. That’s a huge debate now that we didn’t have really during the Mubarak regime, the questions of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. These were issues that were just not tackled to the same extent that they are today.
So there is movement but it’s not because of the government. It’s actually in spite of the government.
Al Fanar: In terms of higher education, what kind of progress has been made?
SF: At state [secondary] schools, there is very little sexuality education now because it’s not a priority for the government.
There have been these youth-friendly clinics, often associated with universities, to try to provide services to young people. They have not proved particularly successful, in large part because young people are not aware of them or found their services did not meet their needs. This is especially true of young women who, studies show, met with highly stigmatizing attitudes among clinic staff who disapprove of young, single women seeking sexual advice and assistance.
If you go on the web, there is a lot of information about sex in Arabic. The problem is that much of it is put out with a religious spin, which condemns just about everything. You can find websites, for example talking about the dangers of masturbation, that you will go to hell and before you get there you will be blind and deformed and impotent. So there is a lot of misinformation.
There are however, attempts to use technology to reach young people with accurate information, one of those projects is through Shababna here in Egypt, [which uses] the internet and also mobile platforms so that young people can send in questions about sexual and reproductive issues and receive information from a team of doctors.
Al Fanar: What do you think needs to happen for these deeper changes to take place?
SF: There are so many foundational changes that need to happen first: legal reforms, the laws are deeply unequal for men and women across the board – political, economic, social, sexual and reproductive rights. For instance, marital rape is not recognized as crime in most countries in the region. The list goes on and on.
Education reform, absolutely, [we need] a reboot of an entire system.
It begins with asking questions: why are things the way they are? Why there are so many taboos around sex? Why are we so close-minded?
I wrote the book in large part because people are now questioning politics and they are starting to ask questions about religion. We are starting to see discussions that we did not see before.
The reality is that most people want to have religion somewhere in public life. So my argument is that between haram and halal there is a spectrum of interpretations related to sex and reproduction. And you are not aware of this because dictatorial governments and current religious regimes don’t want you know that.
They want to control you and the best way to control you is through sex