Does the Arab World Need to Talk About Sex?

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Shereen El Feki might have the best job ever. In the process of her research, she explains vibrators to Arab women. To prove the point that women’s sexual pleasure has been acknowledged for centuries, she studies medieval texts about orgasms — and dogs performing oral sex on humans. And to elucidate the way women’s virginity is a priority, she talks to doctors about the growing trend in anal. (Anecdotally, they say, it’s all the rage.)

No shame, she cries! Rather, she sees this work as crucial, especially in the Arab world. El Feki’s research led her to write the 2013 ethnography and Orwell Prize nominee Sex and the Citadel, which has been translated into four languages — Arabic and Spanish coming soon. She’s also served as vice chairwoman for the United Nations’ Global Commission on HIV and the Law and as a healthcare correspondent for The Economist. She’s led weekly shows on Al Jazeera International. Her next project, currently in progress: a companion, in a way, to Sex and the Citadel. She’s teamed up with Promundo and UN Women, funded by the Swedish government, to research men and masculinity in the Arab region, which she says will be the largest survey ever done on the subject. The four-country study, which will publish next year, tries to grasp what’s happening with men in Morocco, Palestinian regions, Lebanon and Egypt. She’s interviewing nearly 10,000 men and women about the changing world of gender relations — asking men about their roles at home, at work and as sons, husbands and fathers. El Feki says, “We know little about [men] because of the focus on women and girls.”

El Feki is trying to nudge private conversations into the public domain. Her strategy: She uses Islamic texts from centuries past to argue that expressions of sexuality are not so foreign to traditional Islam. And she believes they’re urgent ideas worth, um, spreading. “We have HIV. We have sexual violence that we need to talk about,” she says. “But not necessarily in a Western way. We have a history of talking frankly about sex.” Some authors who interest her are Ahmad Al-tifashi and Ali Ibn Nasr al-Katib, men who wrote no-holds-barred, honest and sometimes amusing books about sexuality in the 10th and 12th centuries.

In interviews, she’s elicited frank, kinky conversations most wouldn’t associate with the Arab world’s stereotypes, like when a woman and her circle of friends admitted to feeling dissatisfied in their sex lives. El Feki talked vibrators, lingerie and instructional DVDs; romance, foreplay and short-lived, five-minute sex. Stephen Lewis, a former member of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, remembers her “adroit and consummate ease” when having difficult conversations in front of panels that knew little about HIV or felt uncomfortable about sex. “She has made an important difference,” he says.

While writing Sex and the Citadel, the Canadian-raised, half-Welsh, half-Egyptian says, “I was writing more for the people inside the region, struggling in silence, not aware there were people across town who were, indeed, also struggling with these issues.” Soon the subjects of her work will be able to read the book in Arabic (there have been sales in the region, in English and French). When asked why other tongues came first, El Feki cited censorship in many of the key markets as a key factor that hindered finding a publisher. So far, mostly those outside the region have taken note, which allows El-Feki a platform to tout her future UN results. The topic feels timely in the West: The stories these days of Arab male culture are dominated by the mass sexual assault in Germany on New Year’s Eve and, of course, ISIS. El Feki hopes to inject nuance and specificity into the discussion. But the fact that her work speaks to the West raises questions about whether or not it can also speak to the Arab world — we’ll have to see how the Arabic translation fares.

Growing up in Waterloo, a hub of technology and universities, El Feki was exposed to students of sundry ethnic backgrounds who spoke different languages in the school hallways. She says she personally has not experienced Islamophobia. But she has seen how hostility toward Muslims has changed over time. After 9/11, the racism now has taken on political overtones, she says. She picked up degree after degree in the sciences (never journalism); eventually, perhaps inspired by her neurosurgeon father, immunology won her heart, culminating in a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. She describes her path as “discontinuous evolution” — she was an intern at the Economist covering science, and technology brought her to the venerable newspaper for less than a year. But just as she was about to be rudely booted out (she’d been told they weren’t hiring long-term), Nature was publishing a report on Dolly, the first cloned sheep. She was part of the team that was responsible for covering the issue, and because of her unusual background in molecular biology, the piece eventually landed her a job offer.

El Feki encourages wider sexuality conversations in the Arab world. There are others: Safa Tamish, who advocates for sex education in Palestinian communities. Mosaic (Lebanon) and Chouf (Tunisia) do LGBT rights. HarassMap in Egypt works on sexual harassment. Change is slow and often difficult to come by, Noora Flinkman, head of communications for HarassMap, says. One major obstacle in the culture is victim blaming. But she has noticed support in Egypt for HarassMap’s cause. The times have seen some a-changin’ in the arena of sexual awareness: Morocco’s abortion laws now recognize incest and rape as valid grounds for termination, and in Mozambique, questions about HIV can be asked and answered via SMS.

“You don’t get change through confrontation but a gradual process of negotiation,” El Feki says, underlining one of her major arguments — she’s pro cultural conversations, not violent protesting. And her work is importantly not grounded in Western secularism — she sees her choice to build on the Islamic framework as a pragmatic one, building the future by way of the past and present.

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