In 1849, Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, travelled from Alexandria in Egypt to Wadi Halfa in Sudan to collect information for France’s Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce. But his official mission was probably the last thing on his mind; in fact, he wrote back to a friend in France stating: “near me, about ten millimeters away, are my ministerial instructions, which seem to be waiting impatiently for the day I’ll use them as toilet paper.” Instead, he was much more interested in a more intimate project, which proved far more productive – sex. During his entire expedition up the Nile, he took prostitutes with great zeal, witnessed a boy pimping his mother, an abundance of sodomy and all kinds of other exotic sexual adventures.
In tenth century Baghdad, long before Flaubert’s escapade into the region, a man named ‘Ali ibn Naser al-Katib published and distributed the Encyclopedia of Pleasure, which outlined in 43 chapters almost everything there is to know about sex: “heterosexual, homosexual (male and female), bisexual, animal, vegetable, and mineral.” It even covered the emotional aspects of sex, such as jealousy or how to deal with a woman’s mood swings.
Consider those two facts again: in Middle Eastern Islamic countries, sex was once openly discussed and embraced. Contrast that atmosphere to modern day Middle East, where masturbation is perceived as a sin and premarital sex is considered “moral degeneration,” and those two facts seem ever more shocking. That sharp contrast is the subject of the new book Sex and the Citadel by Shereen El Feki. Through a tessellation of anecdotes, interviews and thorough research concentrated mainly in Egypt but also from other countries around the region, El Feki explores why that shift in attitude occurred in the first place, the present day situation across the region particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring that shook several long-standing institutions and what lies ahead for sexual freedoms in the Middle East.
It comes as no surprise to anyone that the Islamic diaspora spread across the Middle East and North Africa affords its people limited sexual rights today, if any at all, since sexuality - as with every other aspect of life - is viewed through the lens of the Qu’ran. Marriage and reproduction are considered the only acceptable contexts for sex, “sexual relations outside these regulated contexts constitute zina (illicit and punishable),” states El Feki.
Within the confines of a deeply entrenched patriarchal culture, inevitably the brunt of these limited sexual freedoms fall on the women. Female genital mutilation, though declining, still occurs. Virginity – defined as an intact hymen – “remains what could be described as a big fucking deal,” states El Feki, and must be proven on the wedding night. Even regular tampons are feared for the off chance that they end up breaking the hymen. In fact, virginity is such an important facet of life for women that it can be used as a political tool; virginity ‘testing’ of young female protestors by the military during the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square in 2011, for example, was used as a way of control and subjugation. Furthermore, abortions and contraception are hard to come by. Men, on the other hand, are not prone to that level of scrutiny.
El Feki also examines forms of sexuality that deviate from the heterosexual realm, prostitution, the importance of family and the impact of the economy, education, immigration, internet and mobile phones on relationships, with great detail.
The one overlap found with each of these topics is the pressure cooker of angst and energy, placing the region in a position comparable only to the “West on the brink of the sexual revolution” with many of the “same underlying forces that drove change in Europe and America” present in this region today: a third of the Arab world’s population is aged between 15 and 29, many of which are university graduates, “making it home to the largest youth bulges on the planet,” urban areas continue to sprawl exponentially, job supplies are low and inflation stubbornly high. These forces combined have pushed up the number of unmarried people over the age of thirty leaving single Arabs in a frustrating, supposedly asexual void who are now breaking the mold and demanding change. It’s a hopeful position to be in but also an extremely precarious one; one only has to refer to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 or even the tumultuous results of the recent Arab Spring to see that drastic change doesn’t always follow a predictable or a necessarily positive path.
The question that immediately arises here is why. Why is Islam this conservative? Is sexual freedom incompatible with the religion? El Feki has found, through numerous scholars and activists, that contrary to popular belief Islam and the Qu’ran are not conservative and that sexuality is indeed compatible with the religion. In fact, a Tunisian sociologist, Abdulwahab Bouhdiba, believes that sexuality is and was “a prayer, a gift of oneself” and a way of understanding God. Another scholar, Olfa Youssef, claims that the Qu’ran is actually the “only perfect thing for every time and place, but the human reading is relative and depends on the nature of who is doing the reading.”
One explanation – a widely accepted one – about how Islam’s attitude towards sexuality went from open to closed is colonization. During Flaubert’s time in Egypt and even before, the Christian West was as sexually restrictive, particularly with homosexuality (think Oscar Wilde), as Islam is today. In trying to understand how they lost to the West, Arab intellectuals stipulated that perhaps their sexual debauchery was the cause for their decline and therefore “they…started to rewrite their own sexual history according to a European script,” writes El Feki. Adopting this conservative stance snowballed, particularly with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and resulted in the situation at hand today – a history that reeks of irony considering the West’s relatively liberal values today towards premarital sex, contraception and, more recently, homosexuality.
Despite covering almost every aspect of sexuality within the pages of her book, El Feki barely touches upon the idea of secularism, which in many ways is intertwined with sexual freedoms. She consistently finds her way back to the argument that, within Islamic laws, progress, liberty and a thriving democracy are all possible because of the idea that the Qu’ran and sexuality can go together. That is idealistic thinking. It is nice to consider that two forces can work together but history has proven time and again that until a state untangles itself from religion, progress remains limited. In fact, citing Abdessamad Dialmy, a Moroccon sociologist, and Wilhelm Reich, author of The Sexual Revolution, El Feki states herself that “if you don’t change the sexual order of things, freedom will never stick.” She also proclaims at one point “it is hard to see how democracy can flourish in a society if its constitutional and cultural cornerstone in the family is so undemocratic.” Yet, she never pushes forth the idea of secularity and instead - in the same vain as Edward Said’s critique of ‘orientalism’ - states “the West is no guide to how change will play out in the Arab world. Development is a journey, not a race, and different societies take different paths.”
To those that may argue that Egyptians are currently rejecting the newly adopted Western ideal of democracy by overthrowing President Mursi and would therefore do the same for secularism, perhaps a less dogmatic view of the situation is in order. The overthrowing of the Muslim Brotherhood is not because the Egyptians do not know how to function in a democracy, but because the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood was not as progressive and secular as the Egyptians would have hoped: not only did the party leave inflation, unemployment and corruption unaddressed, but also lambasted the UN declaration condemning violence against women (adopted around the world early this year) as “violating Shariah principles” leading to the “complete disintegration of society.”
Philosophical quagmires aside, Sex and the Citadel is a thoroughly researched book thanks to Feki’s award-winning journalistic background. Having been bought up in Canada, her ‘outsider’s’ perspective adds another layer of objectivity. Out of habit perhaps, instead of asserting her views the book shines a light on the voices of the people in the region, showcasing all sides of the spectrum from liberal to extremely conservative. These voices serve to dispel the myths of the region thus making the book not only compelling but also an important and apt read for anyone who would want to be informed of the world’s most transformative region today. She explains the idea of the book in a nutshell herself: “if you want to understand a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.”
Grab a copy of the book here.
 The Ministry of Youth’s research centre in Iran found an increase in premarital sex, unwanted pregnancies and abortions in 2008. It warned that these “unhealthy relationships and moral degeneration are the leading causes of divorces among young Iranian couples.”
This review was first published in the Asia Literary Review.