For many in Tahrir Square circa 2011, the Arab Spring promised to bring revolutionary change to Egypt, whether social, cultural, political, and/or sexual.

Two years later, many are asking what happened to the aspirations of individuals who flooded the streets of downtown Cairo. In a country where demonstrators once held signs declaring their togetherness “against Injustice,” today we hear stories of rampant sexual abuse against women. Instead of a political discourse focused on how to establish security for all Egyptians, women are blamed for these sexual attacks.

While political pundits and the international media continue to speculate over whether President Mohamed Morsi will be able to bring economic and political stability to Egypt, the revolution seems to be playing out in two separate, yet intimately related and politicized fields: sex and religion.

Examining the intersection between these two areas with ostensibly scientific objectivity, TED Fellow and former vice chair of the U.N. Global Commission on HIV and Law, Shereen el-Feki, discusses sex and sexuality in post-Arab Spring Egypt and its significance for future generations living in the larger Middle East and North Africa region in Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World.

Drawing from her professional background as a Cambridge-trained immunologist and journalist for The Economist, Feki promises to show us “an album of snapshots” that she gathered from over five years of research.

The work includes a significant autobiographical thread, as well. As the child of an Egyptian father and Welsh mother, Feki references her own personal and familial background. Six of the seven chapters begin with quotes from her Egyptian grandmother.

The author weaves first-hand personal interviews with leading civil-society workers, academics, and politicians—which she conducted throughout Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia—with social science scholarship and statistics, without including belabored references.

From Egyptian housewives examining sex-toys to the legality of abortion in Morocco, the reader is escorted through a catalogue of sexual phenomena, which Feki tries to situate in a larger historical, political, and cultural context. Virginity tests? Check. Summer marriages? Check. Hymen repair and reconstruction? Check. A long list of sexual practices, experiences, and desires are mentioned in the book. As with many sexual fetishes, some may horrify, while others may entice. Feki walks a thin line as she invites the reader to look inside the bedroom without turning it into a peep-show.

Does it work? I’m not sure.

Some will read the book and dismiss it, justifiably, for not being academic, dare I say not going deep enough. Both in the introduction and conclusion, Feki frames the book in what feels like an obligatory appropriation of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. There is little relevant analytical depth to follow many of the academic and theoretical references made by the author. Had Feki connected the multiple stories she tells with an overarching theoretical postion, the book may have made a significant contribution to on-going academic discussions on sex, sexuality, and international rights movements.  At the same time, Feki clearly states that this is not the purpose of her work.

This, however, does not stop the author from attempting to engage with the academic literature on sexuality in the Middle East and North Africa. In the chapter “Dare to Be Different,” where Feki details various issues pertaining to the LGBT community in the Arab World, she quickly mentions Columbia University professor Joseph Massad’s “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World” (later republished as a chapter in Desiring Arabs).

Feki leads into Massad’s work by explaining why she does not take the word “gay” lightly—apparently it “carries hefty baggage outside the West” (when did it stop carrying hefty baggage in the West?). In his article, Massad makes an important argument regarding the Gay International—the organizations and interventionist activities that seek to defend/liberate/save gays and lesbians throughout the world and the intellectual discourses that propels this work—namely, that the movement is supported by two types of literature.

First, Massad argues that the Gay International has produced scholarly accounts about the existence of homosexual activity in the Arab world, both past and present. Second, he claims the movement has created journalistic accounts of “gays and lesbians” in today’s Middle East.

Quickly glossing over Massad’s work, Feki misses an important opportunity to examine the way in which international rights movements have intersected with sexuality, in this case homosexuality, in the Arab World. She also fails to contextualize her place in relation to these movements, the Gay International, Islamic feminism, or other groups.

At other points, the book goes too far, both in geographic scope and artistic tone.

While Feki claims to focus on Egypt, if not Cairo alone, her interviews and sources pull from a distinctly international cast. Hopping from Saudi Arabia to England, back to Tunisia, on the way to Egypt, Feki’s dizzying travel across the Arab World obscures the work’s biggest strength: its focus and insights on Egypt.

While globalization arguably touches all countries and people in the region, it seems a stretch to discuss the successes and setbacks of Lebanese or Palestinian activists working on sexuality and reproductive education without more analysis about how these examples provide important lessons for Egypt.

At the same time, Feki’s references to the 1001 Arabian Nights and other orientalist narratives may make some readers uncomfortable. Whether describing her friend’s “Nefertiti cheekbones” or referring to one Egyptian female sex-help line operator as “Nefertiti on toll-free,” Feki’s use of Pharaonic-descriptive tags may increase the book’s mass-market appeal, but runs the risk of alienating those looking to engage with a serious work on sexuality in the Middle East and North Africa.

Looking past these critiques, Sex and the Citadel is a welcome addition to literature on sex and sexuality in the Arab World. Feki’s stories and the diversity of characters she highlights are largely missing from contemporary debates on politics and religion in the Arab world. After all, using sex and sexuality to contextualize political change in the region is not something one finds while scanning the pages of the New York Times.

It takes someone like Feki to guide us through reflections on what could be one of the most complex questions facing Egypt right now: the role of sexual politics in post-Arab Spring Egypt. Questions surrounding women’s rights, the role of the LGBT community, and Egypt’s future will not be answered without taking Feki and her work seriously.

 

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