“When it comes to sexuality, the Arab world can seem like a citadel, an impregnable fortress whose outer face repels any perceived assault on the bastion of heterosexual marriage and family.”
‘Sex and the Citadel’ seeks to examine the sexual mores of the Arab World, abreast with the changing political climate of the concerned countries in the aftermath of Arab Spring. Despite its key focus on Egypt, the author has been successful in visiting other countries such as Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, with somewhat brief attention paid to the United Arab Emirates and Israel. The subject of this work takes to encapsulating the intimate life of the Arab people from the purview of surveying variegated themes, ranging from digital dating to female genital mutilation. Shireen El Feki’s writing is journalistic in orientation, often bolstered by statistics, interviews, anecdotes and opinion polls to bring a more analytical fervour to the work. Ever since 2011, the increasing focus on the Arab World in general and Egypt, in particular, has often weaved narratives around the social, political and economic fabric of the region. However, El Feki self-confessedly chooses to take a closer look into the lives of people to understand the attitudes and behaviour that amounted to the uprising. (“As I've found, if you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.”)
‘Sex and the Citadel’ doesn’t confine itself to merely translating a culture, but continuously challenges the long-held presumptions and conceptions about gender in, what is essential, the Islamic part of the world. El Feki’s critical inquiry into the foray of a subject that has remained publicly unacknowledged is buttressed by her experience in health and science journalism. She herself, notes the influence of the famous Egyptian, feminist author Nawal al-Saadawi on her writing. Grounding her text in its contemporary setting would possibly entail pointing out other writings on the subject of sexuality in the Arab world, whereby Mona Eltahawy’s book ‘Headscarves and Hymens (2015)’ has put her on the same helm of questions as El Feki. Similarly, the authorship of Mona Prince (Egyptian), Samar al-Muqrin (Saudi Arabia), and Hanan al-Shayk (Lebanon) have made efforts to explore this obscure and private aspect of the world and runs parallel to this text.
Armed with sensitivity and wit, El Feki traces the timelines of West Asian Islamic countries, drawing attention to a history of openly embracing and discussing sexual activities, and contrasts it with the contemporary scenario prevalent in these countries. The sharp distinction between the two is illustrated by discussions of historical works on the subject of sex and gender, amongst which particularly striking is Ali ibn Naser al-Katib’s ‘Encyclopaedia of Pleasure.’ Despite her argument, she is aware of the weakness in considering Arabic erotic literature as a primary source for painting the picture of a relatively liberal society, and questions, “Did its openness really represent society at large or just the notions of the sexually sophisticated elite?”
While it is important to understand that the book is not exclusively meant to cater to a Western audience, the penmanship does make the effort to address the idea of a demonised or exoticized Arab sexuality, found everywhere from the writings of Gustave Flaubert to paperback romances. She takes her reader on a journey to critically consider the parallels between the West and the Arab culture, whereby there’s an inherent mirroring in the way both tend to consider questions of homosexuality and sex work. She also dedicates space to analyse the West’s discomfort with its conceived notions of sexuality in Islamic countries, pointing out to readers that it may be systemic biases that guide these ideas instead of ‘abstract moral truths.’
One of the most enjoyable aspects of El Feki’s writing is that it doesn’t simply inform but also poses larger questions about the human nature and hopes to inspire a cultural movement more revolutionary than Arab Spring. With her lack of attention on deciphering the ideal conditions or tarried realities, the author chooses to chronicle the ground situation without condemnation or judgement. Uplifting the, sometimes, frivolous questions of her subjects to concerns of critical study, affirming both the reader and the subject alike. Even from a medical standpoint, her voice doesn’t falter in giving a cold rundown of facts and figures surrounding the somewhat taboo world of sex and its concomitant complexities.
El Feki makes it a point not to shy away from the more controversial question of viewing the intersection between sex and gender from the lens of Islam. Her position on the issue is, however, rather ambivalent and non-conclusive. She maintains that as a religion Islam has always been flexible on the topic of women’s right as well as many sexual matters but at the same time, she stresses that it is unlikely that the patriarchy entrenched in the Arab world will dissipate, until religion constituted with God as the central father figure becomes less dominant in the lives of the Arabs. On the same note, another weakness of the text is that there is a distinct lack of structure underlying the endeavour. As a result, the work is mostly a desultory, collection of writing that function as part chronicling and part opinion connected loosely through a common theme.
El Feki makes certain insightful observations regarding the future of this ‘intimate life’ which is denounced in public but is practised in private. She sets forth the often reiterated idea that the subject of sexual relations is inherently tied to the larger call for personal freedom. Although this demand for freedom was certainly vocalised during the Arab Spring, and feminist themes did run amok as undercurrents of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the question of sexuality, mostly remained missing from the spectrum. To bring it up actively, she suggests that there needs to be a shift in identity formations, whereby individual freedom becomes paramount, instead of the family-oriented culture prevalent in most Arab households. The book concludes with El Feki suggesting that the fortress-like, impenetrable citadel of Arab sexual life may present a huge challenge to the people, living within it and outside it. But, Arabs are increasingly gaining awareness and expressing their dissent, in small and steadily growing numbers if not en masse and perhaps, it’s not untimely to express optimism at the prospect of change and the toppling of the citadel.
1. Eltahawy, Mona. Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. First edition. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
2. El Feki, Shireen. Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. Anchor Canada, 2014.
3. El Feki, Shireen. Pop Culture in the Arab World, 2014. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROgFmb3oTLo
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