Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World–Shereen El Feki


The West has spent a fair amount of time talking about sex in the Muslim world since 9/11, but sex behind a veil–in fact, focused on the veil.  The hijab, the burka, the tradition in some Muslim families to cover the faces and/or the bodies of women.  These narratives have drawn Muslim women as oppressed and Muslim men as oppressors.  

Shereen El Feki’s look at sex in the Muslim world, focused primarily on Egypt, but dipping into surrounding countries for various chapters, parts the veil and tells us that Muslims are struggling with many of the same issues as non-Muslims in the west, as well as some particular to the Islam of their own countries’ cultures.  

What we learn:  Muslim women receive more sex education than Muslim men because they educate one another.  Muslim men are often left with porn or prostitutes as their teachers, leading to some serious mismatches and unhappiness in marriages.  Virginity for women at marriage is at a premium, in fact life or death, leading to a variety of strategies that allow young Muslims to engage in pre-marital intimacy, yet maintain the facade of virginity.  One of these strategies is anal sex, something that would like surprise most in the west.  Another is surgery to “restore” virginity.  

In a particularly heartbreaking chapter, El Feki looks at the lives of homosexual Muslims.  Another surprising revelation from this chapter is that the translation of “gay rights” into the Muslim world has complicated the acceptance of Muslim gays, who have become identified with Western imperialism and forced a western dichotomy on a Middle Eastern world in which sexual identifications are more fluid.  This fluidity seems possible, in part, because current Muslim marriages are so often about procreation rather than the romantic love model of the west.  If one’s spouse is for procreation, one can also have a lover, of whatever sex, who fulfills the romantic love portion of one’s life, without forcing anyone to identify as gay or straight.  

The end of El Feki’s book was bittersweet as we watch many of the movements of the Arab Spring settle back into old patterns and a new movement budding in Turkey around Gezi Park in Istanbul.  El Feki hopes that the uprisings will bring democratization of personal relationships as well as more public discourses and she sees media as an important tool in this transformation.  Her work, which gives all of us, Muslims included, a look at what is actually happening inside bedrooms and this look is a great first step to breaking down the barriers between appearance and reality that El Feki describes as so plaguing the Arab world.

For those who have read widely on sex and repression, you will smile to see Foucault put in an appearance before El Feki has her last word:)

This book is an important read for anyone interested in the Muslim world, in Western world/Muslim-Arab world relations, for those interested in global women’s rights, global gay rights, and the spread of human rights.  That should cover just about everyone, right?

My only complaint is the cover art on the dust jacket.  Really?  But that speaks more to what publishers see attracting readers in the West than to anything about intimate life in the Arab world.

Finished 5/13


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