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Sex and the Citadel – Opening the Window on Intimacy in the Arab World

October 17, 2013

Over thirty years of coming and going to the Middle East, the intimate lives of ordinary people in my host countries have remained opaque, not to say impenetrable to me and most of my fellow travellers from the West. Occasionally windows would open, in the form of invitations to homes, weddings, revealing conversations and stories in the local media. But social occasions – especially in the more conservative societies – were almost invariably single-gender events. Discussion about affairs of the heart – and body – remained off limits to all but those closest to those involved, and would normally exclude anyone from a different culture, faith or ethnic background.

For a Western man, no subject is more opaque than sex and sexuality within the Arab world.

I came of age in the late 1960s. It was the era of what the media referred to as the permissive society. Laws prohibiting abortion and homosexual acts had been repealed. The contraceptive pill made it easier for women to have sex without worrying about getting pregnant. Recreational drugs became freely available. Pornography – apart from “soft porn” magazines sitting on top shelves in newsagents – was a specialist vice, not easily available to the majority as it is today through the internet. In the space of a few years, sex leapt out of the confines of marriage, and was written about, talked about, sung about, depicted and practised in all levels of society in a way never witnessed before in Judaeo-Christian civilisation. Or so it seemed to my generation. As the British poet Philip Larkin commented in Annus Mirabilis:

“Sexual intercourse began / in nineteen sixty-three / (which was rather late for me) – / Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban / And the Beatles’ first LP”

It became socially OK to have children out of wedlock, to live with your partner without being married. We could read D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, with its explicit sexual descriptions, without having to  wrap its cover in brown paper to disguise the title. Fear of sexually-transmitted disease was focused mainly on conditions that could be treated with antibiotics at what was known at the time as the “clap clinic”. Many of my generation had multiple partners before settling down to married (or unmarried) life with a single person.

In the 1970s my peers gaily went about their sexual lives without fear of AIDS. People wrote and talked about sex incessantly. At the same time women’s liberation movements sprung up. Writers and thinkers like Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem not only mobilised their sisters, but challenged the attitudes of us men about the role and rights of women in society. We began walking on eggshells as we strove to avoid overtly sexist behaviour, even if deep in our hearts the caveman still lurked.

Perhaps none of this would have happened if my generation had not undergone other profound changes in attitude. We lost our respect for the religious establishment. We didn’t abandon spirituality, but we looked further afield for spiritual inspiration – to the East, and to the belief systems that our ancestors would have regarded as primitive. We lost respect for the political order and to some extent, for our parents, whom we saw as exhibits in the stuffy social museum of post-war Britain.

We were rebels – mods, rockers, hippies, anarchists, trotskyites, gurus, bra-burners, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, punks, heroin addicts, rock stars, strikers. We rejected war. We wanted to make love. We wanted to change the world while our elders and betters wanted to go to the moon and hold back the tide of communism.

But “we” were only a small part of a minority of nations on the planet, even if what we saw as new and exciting eventually radiated out beyond our cultural borders. But for us at the time, it was our world, and within our perspective it might as well have been the whole world.

Yet outside our delirious bubble, others were living very different lives. In Russia, China, Africa and the Far East, poverty and the grim discipline of totalitarian rule afforded the many no opportunity to think beyond the next meal, and no freedom to act outside the constraints of family and ideology.

In the Middle East, the three constraining, and sometimes conflicting, forces of nationalism, faith and family worked together to ensure that the essence of the developing Western social mores did not sweep away the long-established social order, even if the desire for Western technology and fashions, not to mention forbidden pleasures, eroded it. The presence of a supposedly Western society, Israel, in its midst acted as a perennial irritant.

The consequence was that what we in the West think of as the sexual revolution passed the Arab world by.

To a greater or lesser extent, attitudes towards sex and sexuality remain circumscribed by respect for family, faith-based values and the diktats of the state. Sexual relations outside marriage are frowned upon and in some countries prohibited by law. Homosexuality is frowned upon, and homosexual acts attract severe punishment. Female genital mutilation is rife – a pre-emptive act based on a widely-held tradition that female sexual desire needs to be curbed. Sex education is patchy and rarely delivered without a vein of moral instruction. Family expectations lead to a reluctance to deviate from established norms for fear of abandonment. Where the welfare state is minimal or non-existent, the family continues to be the bedrock of social and economic security.

The sexual landscape of the Arab world has always been a point of popular in the West. Perhaps because it’s shrouded in mystery for an outsider, it exerts the same fascination that my young ancestors had for the few parts of the female anatomy that were commonly on view in eras of prudery – in late Victorian England, for example, when ankles became objects of sexual desire because all other parts of the female form were clothed. Witness the nineteenth century obsession with white slavery, the huge popularity of the Valentino movie The Sheikh, and in more recent times books by Jean Sasson about the trials and tribulations of the female elite in Saudi Arabia.

I’ve also been interested in the obsession of many Muslims for the minutiae of intimate life as it related to the observance of their religion. In the 80’s the local media were full of letters from people who were clearly agonising over whether their acts of observance were invalidated by an accidental act or omission, many of which involved sex. And not so long ago I was amazed when an educated Arab friend with much experience of the West told me that on more than one occasion he had been approached by friends for advice, because they didn’t know what to do on their wedding nights.

But if the Arab world has looked on at the sexual revolution in the west with a mixture of disapproval and envy, what have been the effects of the revolution that has swept over the region since 2011?

Shereen El-Feki tries to answer that question in Sex and the Citadel, her study of sexual attitudes and behaviours in the Middle East.

El-Feki is a journalist and academic born of an Egyptian father and a Welsh mother. She describes herself as a liberal Muslim. With a foot in two cultures she’s in a good position to lift the lid off a subject that is still riddled with taboo and inhibition. She does so with stories, humour and acute observation.

Her book is neither a polemic nor an academic tome. It’s a highly readable and sympathetic account of societies in transition. Although the majority of her research comes from Egypt, she also looks at the Maghreb region (Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco), the Gulf and Lebanon. She deals with marriage and sexual behaviour; the social impact of religious belief about sexual behaviour; prostitution, and marriages sanctioned some religious scholars that in the eyes of a Westerner look and feel like prostitution; and finally attitudes towards what many in the region look upon as deviant practice – gay and lesbian sex – as well as the plight of those who chose to change gender.

El-Feki reminds us that today as much as at any time there are wide differences in interpretation of Quranic verses relating to sexual behaviour. She also looks back to an age when the erotic was celebrated in Muslim literature, and maintains, as do many others, that Islam is not a faith that frowns on sexual pleasure. Indeed, many Muslim scholars look down on Christian thinkers as being responsible for sexual repression for which there is no place in Islam. Many of the differences of opinion among Muslims arise not from the Quran itself but from the interpretation of Hadiths – the stories of the acts and utterances of the Prophet handed down through successive generation – many of which are considered by some scholars to be of dubious authenticity.

She believes, as I do (albeit from the far more limited perspective of a non-believer), that many Muslims miss the big picture of their faith by focusing on the rituals of observance, as dictated by generations of scholars each with their own particular axes to grind, many such axes reflecting the social and political ethos of the age.

Here’s a passage that encapsulates that view, and could equally apply much Christian thinking down the centuries. El-Feki’s interviewee is Olfa Youssef, a Tunisian professor of linguistics and psychoanalysis and author of Hayrat Muslima (A Woman’s Confusion).

“For her, homosexuality and sexuality in general are entry points to a deeper understanding of Islam’s holy book and a fertile ground for itjihad, which she aptly describes as “a perpetual adventure in search of the real meaning of the Qu’ran, which is known only to God” Unfortunately much of the response to her book, particularly on Islamist websites, has focused more on the sex and less on that deeper purpose. “I understand [why], because sex is sacred and religion is sacred”. Youssef laughed. “Together it’s a Molotov cocktail, and especially when it’s a woman [involved] as well.”

She was quick to point out that her arguments draw on more than a millennium of Qu’ranic interpretation – although the earlier thinkers she cites were unlikely to have been branded sluts for their intellectual pains, as Youssef has been. “Why is the new ‘ulama’ [community of Islamic scholars] so much more closed and rigid towards sexuality than the ancient ones?” she asked rhetorically. “It is extraordinary. The old ones talk about homosexuality, no problem”. Then, ever the teacher, she offered an answer. “There are several reasons why we went from an open to closed interpretation. The first is that Muslims were colonised by a Christian point of view. In Christianity, sex is not just taboo, it is locked up,” she opined. “Another reason is Wahabism. [The Wahabis] are people who show Islam in a completely different way to its real essence. To have power, you need to subjugate people. What is the thing that is freest and most shared by human beings? It’s sexuality. So it’s the best way to block all desire to be individual, to be different. We are all the same; therefore there is control.” The final straw, in Youssef’s opinion, is the general decline in religious education. “The other reason is ignorance,” she said, her eyes alight with frustration. “People don’t read any more. They listen to Al-Qaradawi, Amr Khaled [television preachers]; they don’t read what Al-Tabari, al-Razi [two early Islamic scholars] said. They don’t even read the life of Muhammed.” Her indignation suddenly turned to a smile at the name of the Prophet. “I like that man. He never had a problem with the sexual.”

This winding down of individual religious thinking – a sort of spiritual and intellectual malaise – may seem at odds with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and religiosity over the past few decades. But, as Youssef and others argue, religious form has come to replace spiritual substance for many. “In Islamic countries, if you stop someone in the street and ask them, ‘what is haram?’ they will say fornication and alcohol, things on the surface. But everything else, we don’t talk about it: love your neighbour, honor – forget it. We throw rubbish in the road, no problem; we say bad things about our neighbour, no problem. Religion, it’s [now about] sex. But this is the institution of religion, not religion [itself].”

Faith and scriptural interpretation are themes that run throughout the book. For example, she cites the religious justification for summer marriages in Egypt, wherein men from the Gulf, often elderly, conclude temporary marriage contracts with young, impoverished Egyptian girls with the connivance of their families. It’s a practice that would be viewed in the West as little more than prostitution, yet it is permitted in some schools of Islamic thought, and serves as a vital economic lifeline for the families.

Sex and the Citadel is no prurient peep-show about sex in the Middle East. It’s a serious yet lively study of a subject rarely dealt with by non-Arab thinkers. El Feki is optimistic that a more coherent and pragmatic attitude to sex, sexuality and sexual heath will eventually emerge in the Arab world, hand in hand with the development of what she calls “a vibrant and independent civil society”.  She acknowledges the possibility that political Islamists will put the brakes on serious reform, but believes that their influence will eventually wane. The book was published, by the way, before the July ousting of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, though I’m not sure that the Brotherhood’s replacement with a military-backed government will have changed her mind about the speed of the changes she anticipates.

The tone of the book is not judgemental – she lets her interviewees speak for themselves – yet nor is it coldly objective. El Feki is clearly proud of her Arab antecedents and cares deeply about the future of the region, and especially that of its women. Sex and sexuality are embedded in the DNA of any society. They affect all aspects of human behaviour. She will have made a significant contribution to Western understanding of the Arab world, if only we would listen to the wider implications of her work before rushing to judgement, as so many of us do when thinking about the region’s seemingly endless  struggles.

Thirty years ago, my expatriate bubble in the Middle East was populated with many people who were openly gay – at least among their peers. They could not admit their sexuality to their hosts. By the end of the 1980s before the advent of systematic HIV testing, many of them fell sick and died upon return to their home countries. Even while this was happening, the local media faithfully published the government’s assertion that there were no cases of HIV within the national population, despite the fact that medical professionals of my acquaintance were strongly suggesting otherwise.

We’ve moved on since then. Even the most conservative societies in the region accept that HIV is a problem, even if they’re reluctant to accept its primary cause. Yet a prominent official in Kuwait is even now calling on religious grounds for mandatory gender tests on incoming foreign workers, with the implicit intention of preventing gays and transsexuals from infiltrating the local workforce.

One wonders how he would have coped in the court of the Abbasid Caliphs, where, according to El Feki, in the eighth century CE, ghulamiyyat – girls dressed as boys – plucked their eyebrows and painted their lips, yet also drew on moustaches. Apparently there were over four thousand of them in the court of Harun Al-Rashid. One suspects that the ghulamiyyat  would have been quite at home in the bars of London, Bangkok and San Francisco. Clearly there are aspects of the Golden Age of Islam with which some modern functionaries within the former domain of the Abbasids would be less than comfortable.

One would hope that in a couple of generations Shereen El Feki’s optimism will have been borne out, because it seems to me that sexuality is the cause of great unhappiness and unresolved tension across the Arab world – a major factor in a region that has seen more suffering over the past century than its people deserve.

As for me, I still cling naively to that slogan of my permissive youth: “all you need is love” – in whatever form brings you lasting happiness and health, and does no harm to others.

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