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Shereen El Feki discusses her new book on sex in the Arab world

<i>This post has been corrected, as indicated below.</i>

As change sweeps across the Arab world, there are a variety of lenses through which to examine these changes: religious, cultural, political, economic. Shereen El Feki has chosen a decidedly less conventional lens with her new new book “Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World” (Pantheon, $29), due out Tuesday.

The book takes a close look at the sexual lives of men and women in the Middle East. Combining original research with first-person stories from housewives, young virgins, activists and sex therapists, “Sex and the Citadel” provides a detailed account of a veiled and sensitive aspect of Arab society.

Currently dividing her time between London and Cairo, El Feki has worked as a journalist for the Economist and a presenter with Al Jazeera English. She also is a former vice chairwoman of the United Nations’ Global Commission on HIV and Law.

El Feki took a break from a full day of live interviews and popped into a London cafe to catch up with us over email (as well as take shelter from the brutal rain). She will be making her way to Los Angeles for a Writers Bloc event this Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Silent Movie Theatre, where she will be in conversation with Egyptian American comedian Omar Elba.

While “Sex and the Citadel” takes a look at the sexual lives of men and women across the Middle East, there is a stronger focus specifically on Egypt.

My book is centered on Egypt, and in particular Cairo, in part for personal reasons. My father is Egyptian, most of my family live in Egypt, I carry an Egyptian passport and I’m Muslim. But I grew up in Canada, and I never thought much about my Arab heritage -- until Sept. 11, that is. The events of that day and their aftermath spurred me to look more closely at my Arab origins, to better understand where I came from.

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But this is more than personal. Egypt is a natural focus of this book because it is the most populous country in the Arab region. Because of its strategic geopolitical importance, it retains formidable political, economic, social and cultural influence across the region. The collective sexual problems faced by Egyptians -- taboos against premarital sex, masturbation, homosexuality, unwed motherhood, abortion, and a culture of censorship and silence, preached by religion and enforced by social convention -- are found across the Arab region. And the solutions that Egyptians will, I hope, find in the years to come will have relevance for their neighbors across the Arab region as well.

Why did you choose sex as the lens through which to examine political and social change throughout the region?

My background is in HIV/AIDS. I trained as an immunologist before becoming healthcare correspondent at the Economist (where part of my beat was covering the global HIV/AIDS epidemic), and most recently I was vice chair of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law. If you want to understand HIV in the Arab region, you have to look at sex because it is the main route of transmission in most countries in the region, and taboos around sex pose a serious challenge to tackling HIV.

It became clear to me that sexuality, more broadly defined, is an incredibly powerful lens with which to study a society, because it gives you a view not only of the miniature of people’s intimate lives but also the wider canvas of public life. Beliefs and values, attitudes and behaviors around sex are shaped by bigger forces -- politics, economics, religion, tradition, gender, generations. If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.

You delve into a subject matter that is both intimate and largely hidden from view. How did you go about conducting research?

My approach came from my background as both a scientist and a journalist. The academic in me set out to identify, collect and analyze as much of the existing research on sexuality in the Arab region as I could find. It wasn’t easy; research on sexual life in most of the Arab world is still scarce (there is, as yet, no Kinsey or Hite Report for the region -- badly needed, I might add), and more often than not, the results have ended up in a locked drawer due to state or self-censorship.

But after five years traveling across the region, I managed to find a treasure trove of studies and surveys, which readers can explore in my book and on my website, sexandthecitadel.com. But I’m also a journalist, so I was interested in personal stories as well. Throughout the book, the individual tales are a bright light on the research findings, illuminating points in a human and highly engaging way.

You include first-person accounts from virgins to housewives to sex therapists. How did you find these women?

It was surprisingly easy. Some of the characters in my book -- like Heba Kotb, the Arab world’s best-known sexologist -- are celebrities in their own right, whom I essentially cold-called and were gracious enough to open their homes and their offices to me.... Through my work on HIV, I collaborate with a large number of NGOs across the region -- for example, ALCS in Morocco -- and they were kind enough to introduce me to some of their beneficiaries on the sharp end of sexual stigma, such as female sex workers, men who have sex with men, and unwed mothers. And through friends, I got to know people from all walks of life.

Was it challenging for these individuals to open up about the subject of sex? Did it ever seem as if they feared for their safety by discussing such a sensitive topic?

One of the biggest surprises in writing this book is just how open people were to talk with me about their intimate lives.... In fact, the poorer and less educated the people, the more open I found them to a frank, and often very funny, exchange of views.

This was especially true of wives, who were generally more articulate on these matters than their husbands, partly because of their greater ease at talking with someone of the same sex and partly because of the heavier burden they carry.

Throughout the book, it’s clear that many Arab women share the sexist ideologies of their culture, even though they suffer as a result. Why do you think so many women hold so tightly to those beliefs?

The patriarchy runs deep in Arab societies: It is reflected in unequal laws for men and women; in cultural practices such as female genital mutilation which seeks to “tame” women’s sexual desire; or in double standards around virginity. And you’re right, it is often women who uphold these norms as strongly as men; for example, condoning physical discipline if a wife strays or refuses to consent to sex. The patriarchy survives, in part, because women derive some benefit from it -- for example, a wife’s obedience in exchange for a husband’s financial maintenance. These patriarchal attitudes are often reinforced by selective interpretations of religion which, for example, emphasize qawama -- male authority -- and which have greater prominence than ever before thanks to the rise to political power of Islamic conservatives in Egypt and its neighbors in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Even though the subject matter is serious and often somber, you still manage to insert a humorous tone at certain points in the book. How did you strike a balance?

Wasn’t it Woody Allen who said that sex is the most fun you can have without laughing? Well, talking to people about sex is another story.... Egyptians, for example, are famous for their sense of humor, and sexual jokes are a mainstay of private conversation -- especially among men. Public discourse is a little less lighthearted, especially with the recent rise of Islamic conservatives. But in one-to-one conversations, even when their personal stories were extremely serious -- like Faiza, a young unmarried mother in Morocco, or Munir, a gay man in Egypt, both with terrible personal histories of violence -- they managed to see the humor -- and absurdity -- in prevailing attitudes towards sexual life.

What were you most surprised to discover about the sexual lives of men and women in the Arab world?

I was surprised at the courage and creativity of so many women and men I met across the region in addressing sexual dilemmas. Contrary to popular perceptions of the Arab world on such matters, they are not hopeless or helpless; they are trying to find solutions to their problems -- whether it is through tough decisions in their own lives or community projects or national policies. Like ... Safa Tamish, a Palestinian woman, who has developed a highly innovative program which works along the grain of religion and culture to introduce sexuality education into schools -- a highly controversial subject. Or Chafik Chraibi, a gynecologist in Morocco, who is pushing for a liberalization of his country’s restrictive abortion laws which result in upwards of 600 clandestine and largely unsafe procedures a day. Often such innovators are thinking long and hard about their faith -- and in the case of Islam, looking back at a history which was once much open in its interpretations on matters of the flesh than we are today.

Has your opinion changed on how far and how fast things will change when it comes to sexual freedom in the Arab world?

In today’s Arab world, the only socially accepted context for sex is heterosexual, family sanctioned, religiously approved, state-registered marriage -- the social citadel which gives my book its title. Anything else is “forbidden” or “shameful” or “impolite.” The fact that large segments of the population in most countries are having a hard time fitting inside the fortress -- especially the legions of young people, who can’t find jobs and therefore can’t afford to marry, or career women who don’t conform to gender expectations and therefore can’t find husbands, or men and women who have sex with their own sex -- is widely recognized, but there is also widespread resistance to any alternative.

The key to social change in the Arab world is not storming the citadel from the outside; most people in the region would prefer to be inside it. It lies, rather, in expanding the citadel so that it takes in a wider range of populations and includes some tricky territory, like sexuality education or abortion. And then, over time, we may find that we no longer need the citadel, and we can start taking it down from the inside.

This process has already begun. The one truly revolutionary aspect of the ongoing uprisings is the new freedom that millions feel to express their opinions in words and actions -- look, for example, at the willingness of women in Egypt to speak against recent sexual violence, something that was unheard of even a decade ago. Politics, religion and sex are the three “red lines” of the Arab world: subjects you’re not supposed to challenge. But just as people in countries across the region are busy contesting received wisdoms in politics and are starting to tackle the role of religion in public policy, I hope they will start asking them same hard questions of sexual life.

What type of response has “Sex and the Citadel” received in the Middle East?

So far, “Sex and the Citadel” has been published in English and German.... The book is now in the hands of a number of Arabic publishers, who are considering it as well....

If women don’t have control over their own bodies, how will they be able to fulfill their potential in economic and political life? If we don’t trust young people with the information to understand and shape their own bodies and sexual lives, how far will we trust them to be active participants in an emerging democratic state? If men and women can’t communicate, can’t treat each other with respect in the bedroom, how will they be equals in the boardroom or in the parliament? The political and the sexual are natural bedfellows.

[For the record, 8:50 p.m. March 9: A previous version of this post said El Feki works as a journalist for the Economist and a presenter with Al Jazeera English and that she serves as vice chairwoman of the United Nations’ Global Commission on HIV and Law. In fact, she no longer holds those positions.]

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