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Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World

Shereen El Feki: Sex & the Citadel

  • Shereen El Feki
  • Nonfiction
  • Out now
  • English English
  • 140 EGP
  • Everywhere
reviewed by
Ester Meerman
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Shereen El Feki: Sex & the Citadel

Since 2011, much has been written about the Arab Spring and Egypt in particular. Most have covered politics, history, the east-west paradigm, or religion, but Canadian-Egyptian writer Shereen El Feki chose a very different point of departure. In her book, Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, she explores sexuality in the Middle East and the taboos and customs that go with it.

“If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms”, El Feki says, explaining her interest in the topic. And she’s got a point; insight into the rites and rituals surrounding people’s attitudes and behaviour towards sex indeed provides a wealth of knowledge about their culture.

Sex and the Citadel serves up a collection of depressing statistics: a third of Egyptian women are domestically abused and around ten percent of those are also the victim of sexual abuse, while more than 90 percent of Egyptian women are circumcised and up to ten percent of maternal deaths are due to abortion – a practice that is severely restricted in Islam.

Unfortunately, surveys are unreliable in the Arab world, as many people provide answers they believe are expected of them – especially in government surveys. A good example of this is that over a third of Arab men claim to be sexually active, while at the same time over 80 percent of Arab women say they are not. So who are all these young men having sex with?

An additional problem is that surveys financed by the government don’t address certain topics; for instance, delicate subjects such as abortion, homosexuality and prostitution are usually avoided. El Feki rightly recognises and explains this, but provides the facts and figures anyway.

Some people think that it is the time for change and to demand rights in the Arab world, but El Feki argues that societies are currently too unstable to realise big change or obtain sexual rights. Change should come slowly and progress takes time; if one immediately starts discussing gay rights, it gives ground for Islamists to attack morals.

However, one of the main themes of the book is that if the solutions aren’t local, they aren’t going to work. A gay rights worker quoted in the book, sees that embracing sexuality in the Arab world nowadays is largely seen as ‘selling out to the west’, but to claim that the west has all the solutions to issues regarding sexuality is, according to them, ‘imperialist’, ‘extremely condescending’ and ‘just another form of colonisation’.

Education is the answer, El Feki believes. If creative thought is encouraged, especially about religion, then change will come. It won’t come in the form of a revolution, but more in the shape of sexual re-evaluation, in which people could one day feel free enough to have a clear view of themselves and their choices.

Although the title of the book reads ‘Arab World’, El Feki’s main focus is on Egypt. Not only because of her heritage, but also because Egypt is an important player in the region, both politically and culturally.

The book is a fairly easy read, however, it is annoying that El Feki quotes her sources directly, grammar mistakes and all, so you end up reading botched sentences such as, “It is more better than” and “I am too much direct”.

A fair amount of Arabic terms are used throughout the book, which are explained only once but keep recurring – we found that an Arabic glossary would have been very useful.

In the footnotes, El Feki often refers to a website that goes with the book, simply titled,, which offers interesting additional information and links to other useful websites.

For those who have already read extensively on this topic, the book offers few new insights, but for the layman, it provides a good introduction. Lots of research still needs to be done, but this book could serve as a useful stepping stone. In order to propel a discussion on sexuality in the Middle East, translating books like these could be a big step, seeing as it would then be accessible to the people it most concerns.

Like This? Try

Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East, Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, The Yacoubian Building

Author Bio

Shereen El Feki started her professional life as an academic in medical science before going on to become an award-winning journalist for The Economist and a presenter at Al Jazeera English. She is former vice-chair of the U.N.’s Global Commission on HIV and Law, and a TED Global Fellow. She lives in London and Cairo.

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