For Books’ Sake Talks To: Shereen El Feki

10th Jun 2013


Shereen El Feki is a writer, broadcaster and academic. Former vice-chair of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law, she is also an award-winning journalist and a TED Global Fellow.

In her new book, Sex and the Citadel, she uses sexuality as a lens through which to explore the changing Arab world, noting how the larger forces of politics, economics, religion, tradition and gender shape attitudes to sex.

If women don’t have control over their own bodies, how will they be able to fulfill their potential in economic and political life?She describes the book as a collection of personal reportage and hard research. The combination is highly effective – this is an enlightening, refreshing and timely work which carefully assesses the possibilities of sexual evolution in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’.

El Feki’s investigation into the closed world of sexuality is so detailed and intimate, it leaves you wondering what challenges she faced in gathering her research.

As an Arab-speaking, half-Egyptian Muslim, with ‘all the fair features of [her] Welsh mother’, El Feki believes her insider/outsider status helped her to gain trust.

People she interviewed felt she understood insider issues, but could simultaneously associate her with a Westerner’s “sexual freedom,” allowing them to talk without fear of judgement.

“Much to my surprise, I had no problem in getting people – especially women – to talk about their sexual lives,” she says. “For all the taboos surrounding sex in the Arab world, the reality in many parts of the region is that people discuss it all the time, in private – women with women, men with men.

The reticence creeps in when you mix the sexes, and when you try to take private conversations into the public sphere – media, schools, mosques and churches, halls of government.”

The book outlines the importance of men’s education in achieving sexual evolution and notes the positive impact the region’s media can have in relation to this. However, she also highlights some of the negative ways in which the media can, and is, shaping cultural attitudes.

“Entertainment media reflects, and to a certain extent, shapes attitudes towards sexual life,” she states. “The trend of ‘clean cinema’ which has dominated Egyptian filmmaking in recent decades, eschews sexual content, under the influence of Islamic conservatism – but still shows scenes of extreme violence towards women, thereby reinforcing cultural norms.”

With regards to pornography, she says that studies in Egypt have shown that pornography reinforces men’s approval of female genital mutilation.

“These consumers are aware that women in the West are uncircumcised and therefore, the unbridled female lust on display in porn videos is taken as proof positive for the need to curb the clitoris and check female sexual drive,” she explains.

However, the potential for feminist impact in the Arab regions is growing. El Feki describes the new generation of feminist groups which are emerging, some of which are secular-orientated.

“These groups are much more connected to growing communities at the grassroots – particularly young, educated, urban women with access to the internet,” she explains.

Two of the most dynamic of these groups are Nasawiya in Beirut and Nazra in Cairo.

“Nasawiya is closely connected to Lebanon’s queer women’s collective – Meem,”  she says. “And Nazra was out on the streets helping female victims of the growing outbreak of sexual assaults with practical assistance on post-rape care, including emergency contraception.”

But the struggle for women’s equality is ongoing and lengthy.

“The patriarchy is alive and well in the Arab region,’ she says. “Just because we have overthrown the father of the nation, in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, does not mean that the father of the family has lost his power.”

Sex and the Citadel had the original aim of helping outsiders understand the Arab region, up close and personal. However, El Feki says that by the time she had finished writing it, the book was as much for people inside the region.

She explains that it became a vehicle to help them appreciate that they are not alone.

“I wanted them to know they are not alone in their problems, nor in the solutions they grappling for, whether it is in the miniature of their own lives, or in their communities, or even at the level of national laws and policies,” she says.

El Feki is clear about the very real need for change and says her book is part of a bigger process, arguing that “having the information and the tools to challenge received wisdoms in sexual and personal life is an important part of achieving the wider goals of justice, equality, freedom and dignity in political, economic and cultural life to which millions across the region still aspire.”

El Feki’s assertion that the sexual landscape of the Arab region is shaped by wider cultural forces is an important one – she believes the political and the sexual are natural bedfellows.

“If women don’t have control over their own bodies, how will they be able to fulfill their potential in economic and political life?” she asks. “If we don’t trust young people with the information to understand and shape their own bodies and sexual lives, how far will we trust them to be active participants in an emerging democratic state?

If men and women can’t communicate, can’t treat each other with respect in the bedroom, how far will they be able to as equals in the boardroom or in the parliament?”

There is no question that El Feki’s work is admirable and necessary, and has huge cross-cultural relevance. The relationship between the political and sexual is explored thoroughly using fascinating research.

El Feki has arguably made a considerable contribution to the ongoing struggle for women’s equality and for the Arab region’s sexual evolution, and she has clear intentions to build on this.

“It’s like I’m on maternity leave,” she says. “Having just given birth to a book, I am now nurturing it through its infancy. And that includes trying to secure an Arabic translation – no easy task.”

She is also looking for opportunities to allow her to work on the ground in the Arab region, taking the findings and debates of the book off the page and into public policy, community projects and everyday lives.

“And I’m considering another book project too,” she adds. “And looking forward to many more years of research, on the road across the Arab region.”

Sex and the Citadel is published by Chatto & Windus and is available from Amazon, Foyles and your local independent book stores.

Kate Kerrow

(Photograph by Ulrike Leyens)