Book Reviews

Book Review: Sex and the Citadel

In 1849, Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, travelled from Alexandria in Egypt to Wadi Halfa in Sudan to collect information for France’s Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce. But his official mission was probably the last thing on his mind; he wrote dismissively to a friend in France saying: ‘Near me, about ten millimeters away, are my ministerial instructions, which seem to be waiting impatiently for the day I’ll use them as toilet paper.’ Instead, he was much more interested in a more intimate project, which proved far more productive – sex. Throughout his expedition up the Nile, he took prostitutes with great zeal, witnessed a boy pimping his mother, observed an abundance of sodomy and engaged in all kinds of other exotic sexual adventures.

In tenth century Baghdad, long before Flaubert’s escapades in the region, a man named Ali ibn Naser al-Katib published and distributed the Encyclopaedia of Pleasure, which outlined in 43 chapters almost everything there is to know about sex: ‘heterosexual, homosexual (male and female), bisexual, animal, vegetable, and mineral.’ It went so far as to cover the emotional aspects of sex, such as jealousy or how to deal with a woman’s mood swings.

Consider those two facts again: in Middle Eastern Islamic countries, sex was once openly discussed and embraced. Contrast this with the modern Middle East, where masturbation is perceived as a sin and premarital sex is considered “moral degeneration(1),” and those two facts seem ever more shocking.

This sharp contrast between ancient and modern is the subject of the new book Sex and the Citadel by Shereen El Feki. Through a tessellation of anecdotes, interviews and thorough research concentrated mainly in Egypt but also from other countries around the region, El Feki explores why that shift in attitude occurred in the first place, the present day situation across the region, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring that shook several long-standing institutions, and what lies ahead for sexual freedom in the Middle East.

It comes as no surprise to anyone today that the Islamic diaspora spread across the Middle East and North Africa affords its people limited sexual rights, if any at all, since sexuality – like every other aspect of life – is viewed through the lens of the Qu’ran. Marriage and reproduction are considered the only acceptable contexts for sex: ‘Sexual relations outside these regulated contexts constitute zina (illicit and punishable),’ states El Feki.

Within the confines of a deeply entrenched patriarchal culture, the brunt of these limited sexual freedoms inevitably falls on the women. Female genital mutilation, though declining, still occurs. Virginity – defined as an intact hymen – ‘remains what could be described as a big fucking deal,’ asserts El Feki, and must be proven on the wedding night. Even regular tampons are feared because they might end up breaking the hymen. In fact, virginity is such an important facet of life for women that it can be used as a political tool; the “testing” of young female protestors’ virginity by the military during the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square in 2011, for example, was used as a means of control and subjugation. Furthermore, abortions and contraception are hard to come by. Men, on the other hand, are not subject to that level of scrutiny.

(1) The Ministry of Youth’s research centre in Iran found an increase in premarital sex, unwanted pregnancies and abortions in 2008. It warned that these ‘unhealthy relationships and moral degeneration are the leading causes of divorces among young Iranian couples.’

Buy the book:  Paddyfield     Amazon

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