Arab Spring: Is sexual revolution the next in line?

“In the Arab world, explains an Egyptian gynaecologist, sex is the opposite of sport: ‘everyone talks about football, but hardly anyone plays it. But sex — everyone is doing it, but nobody wants to talk about it,” writes Shereen El Feki in her book Sex and the Citadel. The conspiracy of silence on sex in the Arab world has many layers to it, and the author uncovers it in a narrative peppered with facts, excerpts from historical texts, anecdotes, interviews and stories. The title of the book is enough to stir curiosity, and plunges the reader into intimate lives of people in the oil-rich region that remain mired in exotica and stereotypes. “If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms,” the author writes in the introduction to Sex and the Citadel.

El Feki, a former healthcare correspondent for the Economist and former vice chair of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and Law, spent five years researching the sexual lives of people in the Arab world to find out whether anything has changed at all. What she discovered in the course of her extensive research, her interviews with people from a wide swathe of society and countries makes for a compelling read. The book is also an attempt to understand if the revolution in Egypt, and the Arab world in general, has brought about any change in the sex lives of its people. Chronicling  a surge in Islamic fundamentalism that has skewered sexual attitudes in Muslim world, the author looks ahead and tries to figure out whether the revolution in information technology, and political upheavals in the region could trigger a sexual revolution. “Is a sexual shake-up next in line?,” she asks.

El Feki’s research throws up fascinating, at times shocking, discoveries that seek to unravel the sexual habits in the Arab world, which at one point in history, was known for its hedonistic erotic liberation. Things, however, are far removed from that past, discovers El Feki. Anal sex is predominant in sexual relationships; high premium is placed on female virginity, which leads to the proud display of a blood-stained sheet of marital blood a day after the wedding; hymen restoration is big business for doctors; summer marriages or marriages for sex exist and so on. A shocking discovery is that of female genital mutilation. Shockingly, it is still practiced and followed religiously. El Feki quotes a mother, who says rather casually, “I’m having my daughters done next week.” And an Egyptian man admits that it endures because men are afraid they will be unable to satisfy intact women.

Despite the seeming obsession with sex, there is little education about it in society, especially among the youngsters. Talking about sex is taboo. Interestingly, she finds out that Egyptian women today barely know the Arabic word for female genitalia. For a society, which once was known for its sexual license, this is indeed shameful. The book explains that it was with the arrival of Napolean’s European influence and later the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s, that sexual intolerance crept in.

Being half-Egyptian herself – the other half being Welsh – El Feki is particularly interested in the sexual practices existing in Egypt. Also, through the lens of sex she tries to understand a society which is undergoing profound changes following a revolution. Yet, she knows that things will not change in the immediate future. The author seems to be resigned to the stasis in the Arab world: the age-old practices such as older men marrying virgin girls, anal sex and female genital mutilation will continue as long as the ban on homosexuality, pre-marital sex and freely talking about sex exist.

Refreshingly, El Feki doesn’t bog down the book with her exhaustive research; rather she makes it an interesting read peppered with anecdotes, wit and humour. Here is the author on conspiracy theories: “There are secret agents all over Cairo wearing special belts that emit some sort of spray or beam to neuter Egyptian men, thereby weakening the nation and reducing population growth.” This is apparently a US-Israeli plot to emasculate Arab men! The book has its seriously funny moments. She writes about the “missing-vagina syndrome, in which a husband cannot find his wife’s relevant parts,” a condition conjured up by “mischievous jinn, or spirits, summoned by someone with a grudge” to drive a person sexually out of business. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

It requires scholarship, subtlety and sensitivity to write on what many will see as a “titillating subject,” and the author has harnessed these skills to pen down a book that will be read by the curious as well as serious students of the Arab culture.

(Book: Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World; Author:

Shereen El Feki; Publisher: Pantheon Books)