March 15, 2013 11:16 pm

Body politics

A study of Arab attitudes to sexuality reminds us of a liberal Islamic tradition

Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, by Shereen El Feki, Chatto & Windus, RRP£16.99/Pantheon, RRP$28.95, 368 pages

 

When it comes to sexuality, writes Shereen El Feki, the Arab world can seem like an “impregnable fortress”. But, as she discovers in Sex and the Citadel , there are also plenty of people who seek to pierce the wall of hypocrisy and talk openly about the subject.

The former Economist and Al Jazeera journalist’s hope that youth revolutions in the Arab world over the past two years would lead to sexual liberation is unlikely to be realised – sexuality is not exactly high on the youth groups’ agenda and the prospect of a debate on the subject recedes with every political gain made by Islamists.

But in talking to ordinary people as well as sex therapists and sociologists, El Feki has been able to produce an original portrait of the region’s youth that sheds light on the condition of women, failing education and health systems, and the uses and abuses of religion to reinforce the status quo.

Sex and the Citadel reminds Arabs of their own, more liberal history. In the Abbasid empire, which ruled from Baghdad between the 8th and the 13th centuries, Arab culture flourished and writing about sex was far from taboo.

El Feki interviews experts who argue that, in spite of what is written in the Koran and the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed), Islam is not necessarily forbidding in this area. “At their zenith in the early Abbasid period, the Arabs were a confident and creative people, and open thinking on sexuality was a reflection of this,” she writes.

True, there are specific prohibitions in the Koran that are difficult to get past, such as the ban on premarital sex. Yet, as Moroccan sociologist Abdessamad Dialmy tells the author, Islamic law is ultimately a text “that can be interpreted in the sense of sexual liberty or in the sense of repression. If the politicians decide on sexual liberty, then the Islamic scholars will find a way.”

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Roula Khalaf

It is at the end of the 19th century that “frank and often celebratory writing on sexuality” dried up, a trend that the author blames at least in part on a backlash against foreign interventions in the region.

Attitudes towards sex in the Arab world remain deeply conservative but they are evolving, even if it is difficult to gauge the extent of change. El Feki cites surveys in which a third or more of young men say they are sexually active before marriage, while more than 80 per cent of young women say they are not – which, as she says, “raises the question as to whom exactly all these young men are having sex with”.

Young women, of course, are also having sex but often just short of intercourse – and, if a couple goes too far, then virginity can be restored by repairing the hymen, a practice that is still common in the Middle East.

El Feki might be right to argue that “the drive to conformity and consensus is a feature of authoritarian regimes” and that the changes in the region have “opened up the space for debate, including about sex”. But she also accepts that young people are not yet making the link between political revolt and defying their own families and society.

As the Tunisian sociologist Abdelwahab Bouhdiba tells El Feki, attitudes towards sexuality have to evolve within a local context and not according to a western model. “We need to talk about Aids, IVF, new sexual behaviour, abortion. These are problems but we need to talk about them in the propriety of the Koran.”

Roula Khalaf is the FT’s Middle East editor

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