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03 May 2013

'Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World' by Shereen El Feki

gave me a sense of perspective and hope for all our futures

I thought this book was about Arab women and politics.  Instead, it is about humans and their most fundamental rights, hopes and of course, desires.  The first time I tried to describe this book I said it was about human sexuality.  The rejoinder was "homosexuality?"  No, it is about all of sexuality.  Humans as sexual beings and the power attached to the control of sex.  It is a vast topic, but the setting (the current Arab world, especially Egypt) narrowed the scope.  The author focused beautifully; Shereen El Feki discusses a taboo topic in the Arab world with grace, curiosity and openness.

Her questions and observations sometimes looked frighteningly familiar.  As a woman in Western Europe, life seems quite free with guarantees and rights that give me control of my own body, regardless of marital status.  But here is the rub... many guarantees are recent.  It is not too long ago that babies were taken away from single mothers and abortion was illegal (often at the same time in the same country).  My daughter does not imagine life without her rights, I do.  The Americas are still struggling with reproductive rights, no thanks to religion for that.

Shereen El Feki made me think about freedoms I take for granted, especially with regards to information and my rights as a married woman.  But she also reminded me of how much social expectations and generational differences affected my teen years and my young adulthood in conservative South America.  I still remember, a female relative in despair over my attitude about school work said, with some force: "If you continue like this you won't even marry a virgin!"  I think she meant me, rather than the groom... It was the worst fate she could think of in that moment... Not so funny once I read 'Sex and the Citadel'.

The Western World, thanks to money and belligerence, considers itself an influential society.  And it is.  But the expectations of change and growth we have are at times unrealistic in other cultures.  This is not to say that "culture" justifies the rape of someone's sister as a punishment to the man and his family for his moral lapse, like I saw on the news some months ago... The rights to the sister's body belong to her family, her husband or a court, if not by law then often by tradition. Laws, culture and attitude do not easily change with only outside pressure; new laws must mean something to those people affected by them.

If any message is obvious after her interviews and research, it is that the Arab youth have some important challenges and often have their own fantastic solutions.  If only their elders would listen; fear holds the Arab world captive in their own beds with repressive sexual rules and expectations... the most repressive of all is the inability to talk about sex at all. El Feki does a wonderful job of asking good, open questions to normal people in all kinds of socio-economic and sexual situations.  Her experiences with a group of house wives is both funny and tragic... But she also talks to homosexuals and prostitutes and anyone who has a sex life or wishes they had a sex life. 'Sex and the Citadel' gave me a sense of perspective and a sense of hope for all our futures in a shrinking planet.

Shereen El Feki 
ISBN: 9780701183165 

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