Puja Bhattacharjee | July 8, 2015 | New Delhi
British journalist and health worker Shereen El Feki dared to rush where most fear to tread. But she’s nobody’s fool. She researched on sex in the Arab world. The result: her first book, Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, has been nominated for the Guardian First Book Award and The Orwell Prize. She has served as vice-chair of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law. She spoke with Puja Bhattacharjee about the challenges she faced, how sex is used by the state to repress women and contradictions of the Arab world. She advises an Arabic website on sexuality that took inspiration from an Indian website.
What prompted you to research sexuality in the Arab world?
It was a function of my personal and professional backgrounds. I am half-Egyptian and Muslim. Most of my family is in Egypt but I grew up in Canada and I grew up at a time when being an Arab and a Muslim was not a major issue. Although I used to take yearly trips to Egypt, I never really thought about my Arab-Muslim heritage until September 11 [the attack on the twin World Trade Center towers in New York by Islamist terrorists]. After the tragic events of that day I really wanted to understand where I come from and especially about these people and this part of the world about which so much was being written about, often in hostile tones. After September 11 you couldn’t be ambivalent anymore. You either moved toward or away from that heritage. I am one of the many who moved towards it.
I chose sex as my lens comes from my background as an immunologist and a healthcare correspondent for The Economist. Part of my job was writing about the global HIV-AIDS epidemic and as I started writing about these issues I became interested in HIV in the Arab region. This was in the early 2000s when it appeared there was no HIV there. The number of infections was very low compared to the rising tide of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa or across Asia, including India. So, as I started to look closely, I began to realise that HIV was very much present in the Arab world but that the taboos around sex were a stumbling block to facing what was an emerging epidemic. If we fast-forward to today, there are only two parts of the world where HIV is on the rise in terms of new infections and deaths from AIDS; one of those parts of the world is the Middle East, and the other, North Africa. So, we very much have HIV, and sex is at the heart of the epidemic because most cases are sexually transmitted. I started asking questions about sex from a public health perspective. It became clear to me as I started talking to people about sex, that sex is a really powerful lens which helps us to understand a society and people. There is a connection between what is happening inside the bedroom and what is happening outside – what is going on in politics, economy, religion, traditions and relations between genders and generations is reflected in sexual attitudes and behaviours.
Do you feel Islam is hopelessly patriarchal and prejudicial to women and the only way change can come is by jettisoning it?
No. I am a practising Muslim who grew up in Canada where I had the freedom of thought, worship and expression. Because of that freedom I am able to reconcile my faith in a way that is compatible with my self-esteem and my rights and responsibilities as a citizen living in a democracy. Faith should be a private matter. It is your choice if you want to live your life inside or outside the perimeters of Islam. The reality in the Arab countries in the foreseeable future is that this is not an option. There is tremendous collective pressure toward conformity and a lot of that is based on rather conservative interpretations of Islam. Even in Egypt, after the uprising, Islam remains the cornerstone of our constitution. To those who tell me why you don’t get rid of Islam, I say that is not what people are asking for on the ground. People do not want a secular sexual revolution. They do, however, want to reconcile the needs of the faith with the needs of the flesh.
What was the Arab world’s reaction to your book?
The book is presently circulating in the Arab world in English and French. Because of this, the book is being read by a more educated, young and westernised audience. The response has been incredibly positive. I have received favourable reviews in newspapers and endless emails, tweets and posts on my Facebook page, particularly by women, thanking me for writing this book because it gives them an opportunity to start having discussions and asking questions which they weren’t able to do. The only adverse comments I have received are from a few readers in the West who have questioned why I wrote about possibilities for change within the framework of Islam. The most perceptive readings of my book have come from India. Readers in India have concentrated more on the solutions, than the problems. That is how I intended my book to be read.
Do you see hope after the Arab Spring?
Despite all the setbacks of the Arab Spring, it has stimulated people to start asking questions. There is certain willingness to start pushing the boundaries and challenge the received wisdom.
What were your challenges while researching for the book?
My difficulty was not to get people to start talking about sex, rather the difficulty was to get them to stop talking about sex. The problem I thought I would have was getting people to open up. But that was not a problem at all. That is because people want to talk about sex, but they often lack an opportunity to do so in a context in which they, especially women, feel that they can ask questions and exchange views without judgment or censure.
Would you say your book focuses more on female sexuality?
My book is often presented as a book on women’s sexuality but there is a lot on men in there. I have a whole chapter on LGBT men as well as women. The reason why you hear more female voices is just that women had more interesting things to say about sex. In part, because the burden of sexuality falls firmly on women. They have to think more deeply about reproduction and other aspects. Then there is regulation. Whether it is the state with its laws or the family with its social controls, sexuality is much more tightly constrained for women than it is for men in our societies. Also, it was easier for women to talk to another woman.
What role does the internet play in disseminating information on sex in the Arab region?
When I started writing this book in 2008 and until last year there was very little accurate information available in Arabic. In Egypt, still less than a quarter of the young people are on the internet. The information in Arabic was mainly religious and treated sexuality from a very conservative point of view, which is only one interpretation of religion. There is so much flexibility in Islam on so many sexual issues – abortion, masturbation, even homosexuality, which conservatives are not willing to acknowledge. Since last year, a new site has emerged which is an interesting product of the Arab Spring. It’s called Al Hubb Thaqafa (Love is Culture) (www.lmarabic.com) and is about sexuality – in Arabic. I’m an adviser to the website. We have not witnessed this level of frank, unvarnished discussion about sex since the 9th or 11th century. Although it’s under the aegis of Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the site was created by Arab women and edited by Arab women; most of its contributors and almost half its audience are also women from the region – a remarkable development given how few other outlets young women have to ask questions and exchange ideas about sexuality, with men in particular. And this project got its inspiration from India, the pioneering Love Matters website (lovematters.in), launched in English and Hindi a couple of years ago.
What were the responses from other Arab countries? When you approached men about their sexuality how did they react?
The Arab world is a very diverse place. There are three major taboos in the Arab world – politics, religion and sex. No matter where you are in the Arab region you are somewhere on this spectrum of the forbidden. Female virginity remains a big deal, masturbation is considered forbidden, abortion in most countries is tightly controlled, sex education is not permitted and homosexuality is a deep dark shame. We are more or less bottled up around sex. Some countries are able to address some issues more frankly than others due to a more active civil society, but it is never easy.
During my research, young men and gay men would talk to me very freely about sex, the latter mostly because they are subjected to many of the same societal pressures as women. The most reticent were married men, in large part because they are not used to talking about such issues with much deep reflection or analysis, and not with women, to be sure. We make sex a problem. In order to make it respectable for public discussion, we treat it as a disease – HIV – or a social dysfunction – sex trafficking or sexual violence. When we frame it that way, men are the oppressors/exploiters/disease transmitters. We do not talk to them, because they are part of the problem. The idea that they could be part of the solution and the reason that they are often counterproductive is in part because they are rarely brought into the discussion, or that they too are under pressures which shape their attitudes and behaviours in often unhelpful ways, is seldom acknowledged. People are beginning to understand that men need to be engaged in the process of gender equality in and out of the bedroom.
Any contradictions you observed during the course of your research?
I have researched both in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, on the surface it appears anything goes. In downtown Beirut, women dress and appear to lead western lifestyles, but they have many of the same sexual problems as in Egypt. In Saudi Arabia, everything appears to be buttoned up and women seem highly repressed. But, of course, they engage in the same practices one sees elsewhere, including pre-marital sex, same-sex relations and sex work. It’s the same gap between appearance and reality as you see in Beirut – the difference is in what appears and what is hidden.
What is the role of governance in sexuality?
Religious, secular and political authorities have used sex as a tool of social control through ages. Those in power have always sought to control female sexuality because it is central to reproduction. In Egypt in 2011 the military government conducted virginity tests on female protestors to intimidate them. And homosexual rape of male prisoners is a far from uncommon police practice, to subjugate unruly subjects. We make these grand statements on freedom, justice, equality and dignity, but unless we achieve these principles in the bedroom as well, they are meaningless. How empowered can women be in the ballot box if they do not control their own bodies, if their hymens are not their own business? How will men and women treat each other with respect in the boardroom if they are not able to communicate with and respect each other in the bedroom? The political and the personal are intimately connected. You cannot separate one from the other. India is a very interesting example. This country has all the trappings of democracy. You have everything we aspire to – a relatively free press, an active civil society, a democratically-elected parliament, and an ostensibly independent judiciary. No democracy is perfect but you have many of the aspects we dream of and yet it is surprising that Indians have many of the same problems as us in the bedroom. You are the world’s biggest democracy but democracy is yet to reach the bedroom and personal lives.
How can we change attitudes?
People have started pushing against taboos. The groups that are most successful are the ones that are trying to bring change through negotiation and not through confrontation. They are moving slowly along the grain of religion and culture because now it is clear that change cannot be brought through a dramatic break with the past. Sexuality is much more complex than political lives. Change is going to come through evolution, not by revolution.
What is your next project about?
Over the next two years, my colleagues and I will be interviewing thousands of men in four countries of the Arab region. It is part of an international project in many countries, including India, called the International Men and Gender Equality Survey to understand what is going on with men, not just inside the bedroom, but outside as well. How do men see their roles as fathers, sons, husbands, lovers, workers and friends? We are going to ask the questions that women have faced for years. We have endless books and projects about women in the Arab region, but very few on men and masculinity.
(The interview appears in the July 1-15, 2015 issue)
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