Sex and the Citadel: Shereen El Feki on the evolution of sexual rights in the Arab World

Kate HawkinsKate Hawkins

This week Sussex University’s Amnesty International society hosted a fascinating event on sexuality, the Middle East and North African regions where we were lucky enough to hear Shereen El Feki speak. Shereen was previously a journalist at the Economist. But she wears many hats, having been Vice-Chair of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, a presenter at Al Jazeera, and a board member of AFE, an NGO based in Beirut which empowers human rights activists across the Arab region. Most recently, her book Sex and the Citadel has been causing quite a stir – focussing as it does on two explosive topics, sex and the Arab World – and is currently being translated into a range of languages, including Arabic.

Shereen’s background
Shereen explained that it was her personal and professional roots that led her to write Sex and the Citadel. Half Egyptian and half Welsh, she grew up in Canada as a Muslim but felt quite disconnected from her roots in the Arab World until September the 11th 2001. Suddenly there was an outpouring of coverage in the West about the place her father heralded from, mostly from outsiders, and she felt it was time to ‘re-orient’ herself. Her professional training was in immunology and she then went on to become a journalist writing about health care, particularly HIV. Sex is the main route of transmission of HIV in the Arab World and that region has one of the fastest rates of new cases of HIV and AIDS-related deaths.

Shereen recounted how she had little trouble getting people to start talking about sex, in fact it was sometimes difficult to get them to stop! Poorer people were more free and frank, leading her to conclude that education doesn’t necessarily make you more open-minded. Perhaps it makes you more mindful of everything you have to lose. Because she looked Western, yet was a Muslim and spoke Arabic women were comfortable talking to her. Whilst people tend to avoid speaking to people outside their social circle for fear of being judged, the fact that Shereen was from the West – an area of the world where everything seemingly goes – meant people had little fear of shocking her.

‘What happens in the bedroom is reflective of what happens outside it’
Shereen’s study led her to believe that sexuality is a useful lens for viewing society as a whole. Whilst the Arab World is not homogenous, there are general themes and taboos that run across the region. How these came into being, how they are perpetuated and challenged provides useful insights into politics and the process of change,

‘The sexual and the political are intimate bedfellows. We can’t have freedom unless we think about our family, personal and intimate lives. Many women understood that immediately. That bodily autonomy is not my family’s business it is my own business.’

Her book uses the metaphor of ‘The Citadel’. The Citadel which is an impenetrable, imposing medieval fortress in Cairo which was constructed by Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn to protect the city from Crusaders. It has played an important political and religious role in Egyptian life since that time. The Citadel in contemporary Arab life is marriage – recognised by family and the state. Marriage is the only acceptable place for sex to occur and it is an institution many are desperate to be part of, yet a growing number of people no longer fit into this institution, or find it difficult to access.

The process of change
For all the uprisings in the region, Shereen cautioned the audience to expect evolution rather than revolution when it comes to sexual rights. She provided an anecdote about Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, an Egyptian woman who became infamous as the ‘Nude Photo Revolutionary’ for posting naked pictures of herself online. To some, her unveiling had a political spin that matched the spirit of the uprising. The response of religious conservatives was fire and brimstone. But many young liberals at the vanguard of the revolution disowned her actions, and some actually took her to court. Shereen cited this as evidence that even among the young and politically questioning sexual rights are seen as a Western invention, or imposition, which will lead to free love, prostitution, porn and homosexuality.

Other changes include a growing awareness of, and backlash against, harassment and violence against women, particularly in the light of attacks that happened in Tahir Square. Whilst a UN report, published in 2013 a found that 99.3% of women and girls are subjected to sexual harassment in Egypt, due to rising conservatism and insecurity, young women and men are protecting each other in new ways. The hostile environment has also prompted women to speak out in ways which they wouldn’t have previously.

Shereen explained how patriarchy, or more precisely the mix of power and sex in an authoritarian and patriarchal system is to blame for rising tides of violence. Patriarchy affects young men too. There is a great burden of expectation on men around marriage and providing for their family, and yet due to the worsening economic and employment situation the age of marriage is rising because many cannot afford this commitment. In these circumstances how do you realise your masculinity and attain manhood? Many young men are in a suspended state of adolescence, still living at home with their parents. To assert themselves they lash out at those weaker than themselves, in this case often women.

Meanwhile dogmatic Islam has created entrenched ideas about the proper place of women. The policing of women’s mobility (and activities such as sport, using tampons or riding a bike), female genital mutilation, virginity testing, and hymen repair operations are all related to the need to preserve women’s virginity so that they can enter the Citadel of marriage. And it is an institution that the majority of people want to break into, given there are few, if any, other ‘legitimate’ sites for sexual activity.

Why this analysis is timely and important for the rest of the world
In many settings the ‘sexual rights as human rights’ approach to sexuality has been met with resistance by who see it as a foreign or ‘Western’ imposition which lies at odds with ‘traditional culture’. Indeed this debate has risen again in Uganda this week with the signing of the ‘Anti-Homosexuality Bill’ and President Museveni’s warning,

‘I advise friends from the West not to make this an issue because if they make it an issue the more they will lose,” he said. “This is social imperialism. To impose social values of one group on our society. “I would advise Western countries, this is a no-go area,” he said. “I don’t mind being in a collision course with the West. I am prepared.’

Whilst sexual rights are a vital framing for these issues there are other ways of approaching sexuality which might be fruitful too. Shereen’s entry points for the discussion of sexuality were more medically focussed, as a way of opening a wider conversation. Of course, HIV has often been a starting point for discussions of sexuality and this approach is not without its critics. But its utility is worth noting in this case.

She also is clear that the Arab World is evolving its own vision of sexual freedom which is unlikely to look anything like a Western model. Understanding how different models of freedom are evolving by listening closely to people experiencing this flux, rather than advocating for a blue-print approach to change tied to the Western model, is clearly important.

In addition, this politics of sexuality does not only focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans identities (important as those are). Women’s desires, freedoms, challenges and triumphs are central to the analysis, which recognises that all people are effected by norms related to sexuality. I think this is enormously important for linking across social movements and interest groups and forging a wider coalition of people to press for change, which has been one of the underlying principles of the Sexuality and Development Programme at IDS since its inception. It is also important because a vision of a socially and sexually just world that doesn’t take account of gender inequality more broadly would fail to recognise and challenge law and policy that leads to women being married to the men who rape them; sterilised because they are HIV positive; arrested or harassed for wearing a mini skirt or trousers, left without a penny as widows, deprived of basic citizenship rights for selling sex. It is a world in which we would all be poorer.

Read previous blog posts by Kate Hawkins

One Response to Sex and the Citadel: Shereen El Feki on the evolution of sexual rights in the Arab World

  1. […] Sex and the Citadel: Shereen El Feki on the evolution of sexual rights in the Arab World […]

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