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‘Sex And The Citadel’ Peeks Inside Private Lives In The Arab World

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
March 20, 2013

“I know of young women who have been returned to their families by their husbands because, as you say, they did not bleed on defloweration,” Shereen El Feki tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.

El Feki, the author of the new book Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, spent five years traveling across the Arab region asking people about sex: what they do, what they don’t, what they think and why.

Her ambition was to learn about the lives of young single people, married couples, gay people and sex workers, and how the sexual aspects of their lives reflect larger religious, cultural and political shifts.

What she learned, she says, is that “the patriarchy is alive and well in Egypt and the wider Arab world,” and that women, too, “are some of the staunchest upholders of patriarchal attitudes.”

Women, for example, decide whether or not to circumcise their daughters and granddaughters. Men are not traditionally part of the decision-making process when it comes to female genital mutilation (FGM).

“[Women] are making the decisions about their daughters’ well-being and FGM, to cut or not to cut,” El Feki says. “They are making these decisions based on faulty information, but the fact is, they have agency; and the key to moving forward is to recognize that power and to shift it to a decision which is recognizing and respecting their child’s physical and mental rights.”

Not everyone could get away with asking such intimate questions, but El Feki’s prior work prepared her for the task. She’s the former vice chair of the U.N.’s Global Commission on HIV and Law, and a former health care correspondent for The Economist.

El Feki grew up in Canada, the daughter of an Egyptian father and Welsh mother, who converted to Islam, the religion El Feki was raised in. El Feki moved to Cairo in 2008, and now divides her time between there and London.

Interview Highlights

On the desire of Arab women to express their sexuality

“For married women, what I found was very much a sense of longing for a more fulfilling sexual life, for more pleasure, for more communication with their husbands, [for an] … ability to express their sexual desire and their sexual needs, and a greater sense of companionship and friendship within marriage.

“But many, many women I spoke with felt constrained on this and, for example, as one woman told me, ‘It would be a shame for me to show my husband that I want to have sex.’ That being said, women find ways of getting around this. Lingerie sales, for example, are thriving across the Arab world, and many of the women I met showed me their rather spectacular bed attire, and it was really highly, highly sexual.

“It was interesting because these women did not conceive of lingerie as being a tool of male oppression. For them it was a tool of empowerment because they could signal their sexual desire not by actually saying, ‘I would like to have sex tonight,’ but by putting on this lingerie and then sending out more subtle signals.”

On a 2008-2009 survey of Egyptian youth that asked about the social acceptability of wife beating

“It was interesting that many of these young people — significant percentages, men and women — agreed that a man should beat his wife if she refuses to have sex with him unless she had a very, very good excuse, or that a man is justified in beating his wife if she is unfaithful. … I would say that it’s going to take considerable effort, education, economic empowerment, political change, legal change to shift these attitudes, and that’s going to be the work of a generation.”

On female genital mutilation in Egypt

“According to a 2008 survey of … married women in Egypt under the age of 50, about 90 percent of them are circumcised, and … about 80 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds have been circumcised. … There are several reasons that women will circumcise their girls — and I need to point out [that] this is actually a decision that is made by mothers and grandmothers rather than fathers — they’re really not part of the decision-making process in this regard.

“Women will say that it is tradition. They will invoke aesthetics that the area looks tidier if this is done. They will often invoke Islam, and they will cite a hadith — an account of … the deeds of the prophet — that suggests that circumcision is desirable. But that is of dubious authenticity, to say the least.

“The major religious figures in Egypt have come out very strongly against FGM — female genital mutilation — saying it is completely contrary to the teachings of Islam and Christianity. The major reason that it is done is that it is thought to control female sexual drive. So the clitoris is somehow seen as an engine of libido, and it needs to be tamed. And if you don’t clip the clitoris, then girls will stray before marriage or wives will make excessive demands of their husbands, and both of these are marriage killers.”

On how some Egyptian women who’ve had FGM understand sexual satisfaction

“They felt sexual pleasure nonetheless, and the reason for that is they did not see sexual pleasure as having an orgasm. They saw sexual satisfaction, for example, in that their husbands were happy in bed or that their overall life was happy in marriage, in that the kids were fed and the bills were paid and they had a roof over their head. So they conceived of their own sexual pleasure in a different way than perhaps one might find with most women in the West.”

On how the question of a bride’s virginity is not a private matter

“The blood is collected on a sheet, which is then shown to family members — and, potentially, friends — to prove that a virgin bride has been delivered. This is key because it’s not just a question of individual reputation or honor of the bride. The virginity and an intact hymen is connected to the family’s honor, and in particular to the honor of the menfolk of the bride’s family. So it’s a collective concern rather than an individual issue. The concern is so deep for young women that hymen repair surgery — a shadowy business — is doing a very nice trade in many countries in the Arab region.” [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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