Sex and the Citadel, the title of Shireen El Feki’s book about ‘intimate life in a changing Arab world’, is a reference to the famous monument in Cairo, but here metaphorically refers to marriage, the only socially acceptable context in which to talk about sex in Arab countries.
El Feki’s book covers the entire spectrum, from its epicentre at the citadel to the very peripheries that conceal the LGBT community, observing that “marriage is the sun of our sexual universe.” She amusingly observed that if you’re ever invited to a wedding in Egypt, Viagra is not only perfectly acceptable but a very common wedding gift: “it also works as an alternative currency.”
Cheeky grin in place, El Feki went on to enlighten the audience about the erotic openness of earlier times, with a rather graphic reading from a 10th century Baghdad book, Encyclopedia of Pleasure. It turns out erotic literature was very much a part of the pre-colonial ‘Arab world’, with women exhibiting stronger sexual drives than today. One might be reminded of India’s own sexual journey, from the Kama Sutra to Section 377, with a dash of colonialism thrown in.
Jonathan Shainin, News Editor at thenewyorker.com, steered the discussion towards the differences in sex and sexuality across geographic borders. El Feki, in the course of her extensive research, discovered that “the citadel is pervasive, it looms over social landscapes everywhere.” And across geographic borders, she found that the major difference lay between the seen and the unseen; a skimpily clad women wearing stilettos in Lebanon didn’t mean she was getting any action, and a hijab-clad woman in Saudi Arabia didn’t ensure abstinence.
The questions were asked, how can a woman who doesn’t have a personal identity have a sexual identity? El Feki stated that “a woman is first identified as the daughter of her father, and then the wife of her husband,” and change would come from education, not just in the classroom, and not just about sex and sexuality, but also from education from the living. It’s about mothers bringing up their sons and daughter as equals.
This was a session that definitely resonated with Indian audiences inhabiting a strangely similar world.