The Arab world’s attitude towards sex and sexuality is no different than that in most of Asia, including India. Which means the accepted context of sex is only of a “state-registered, family-approved, religiously sanctioned matrimony.” Everything else is forbidden or haram.
But what makes it more limiting in the Arab region is that religious diktat and political governance are intertwined — be they in sync or at loggerheads — and the easiest way to rule is to take a moral high ground.
“We don't have that (existence as an individual in the state) here because we exist as daughters and sons and wives and husbands of people. (…) I don’t have a record in the Lebanese government that’s Nadine as an individual …”
Nadine M. is the founder of Meem, a support group for queer women, and one of the many Arabs Shereen El Feki speaks to, to get an insight into their life, as she promises in the title.
Nadine feels families in the Arab world are stronger than in the West, not because “we love our family more (…), but because our family are our providers, not the state.” And one can’t forget that religion is an integral part of that family unit.
What we conclude at the end of the book is that the state is benefited by maintaining this status quo, and prefers to govern from behind a veil of morality than from the pedestal of civil rights.
Having travelled across the Arab world, from northern Africa to the Levant to the Gulf States, and bringing the discussions back to Egypt, her main area of study, El Feki speaks to a wide spectrum of Arabs on their intimate lives: women with no professed ideology, clerics both Islamic and Christian, men and women marginalised for their sexual leanings, activists, scholars, counsellors, people in the mainstream and those on the fringes.
This book, she says, is about those who are trying to break free.
Even if speaking about sexuality has become easier in recent times, it’s still not an ideal discussion. “The medicalisation of sex, through disease or dysfunction, is providing a respectable cover for public discussion, but it is also limiting, leaving out a vast range of issues and groups that a broader conception of sexuality would allow.”
The author contends with a range of practices and beliefs related to sexuality, far beyond “medicalisation.” The grey areas with purported religious acceptance: different kinds of marriages, pleasure (zawajmut’a), customary (‘urfi) and ambulant (zawajmisyar that works more like prostitution than marriage), female genital mutilation (to suppress female desire), oral sex (acceptable as per fatwas of prominent clerics); and those that find no religious acceptance: pre-marital sex, sex outside of marriage, same-sex relations, sodomy, prostitution.
El Feki sees sexual oppression as a recent development, and refers to an era of Arab and Islamic liberation, when literature, art and public discourses didn’t fell sexuality with a sweep of morality.
With every instance of marginalisation in the present, she presents a more accepting historical evidence.
Take the ghulamiyyat (cross-dressers), who flourished during the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad (ninth century), as did same-sex relations. Neither of which finds the least tolerance at present. El Feki speaks of the intolerant attitude that ranges from outright condemnation to attempted conversion of cross-dressing women, who are referred to as boyats (seen as foreign import though it dates back to the ninth century at least) in the Gulf Arab states.
“Qatar has one of the most public and organised efforts (…) in 2007 the government set up a special ‘social rehabilitation’ centre to treat youth problems including addiction, aggression, and ‘sexual deviation’, into which the boyat are bundled.”
So we learn of Arab thought-leaders and writers: from centuries ago — Ali ibn Nasr al-Katib the author of Encyclopedia of Pleasure and Umar Muhammad al-Nafzawi who wrote The Perfumed Garden; and more recently — Tunisian sociologist Abdelwahab Bouhdiba and Moroccan Abdessamad Dialmy. Names familiar only to a small group of Arabs.
Though it is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, the intellectual property and original content in Arabic is disproportionately low. Truth is the language has been appropriated by religion, and hence Arabic writing in recent times has been primarily of a religious nature.
El Feki does not wish to take religion out of the equation, as she maintains accepting differences and respecting individual choices is important and would be possible with religion being part of governance.
Right to privacy, she says, is a core principle in Islam. “The Qu’ran reminds Muslims, time and again, to mind their own business. ‘Believers, avoid making too many assumptions — some assumptions are sinful — and do not spy on one another or speak ill of people behind their backs’ is a recurrent theme.”
She warns the West against projecting its own past into the future of the Arab region, by seeing organised religion as an obstacle to sexual rights.
“Sexual rights can be realised and exercised, in an Islamic framework, so long as individuals have the freedom to think, and act, for themselves. (…) so much of what they (who oppose her views) brand as dangerous foreign ideas were features of the Arab-Islamic world long before they were embraced by Western liberalism.”
What doesn’t sit too well is the burdening of a nascent revolution with the onus of sexual liberty as well. El Feki probably jumped the gun, indicating a mass sexual awakening close on the heels of the mass protests, when Arab spring is not even in half motion.
But then, that’s the essence of this book — the past is extensively researched, the present is well-reported, and the future is full of optimism in the author’s narrative, even if her interlocutors don’t always express that same hope.
She in turn coaxes and lures her readers, and appeals to the higher sense of media and artists to speak their minds. “This is more than a question of artistic freedom: it has real implications for the health and welfare of Arab societies.”
In fact, she admits in the concluding chapter that she might hold “a rosy view from a liberal Muslim woman’s perspective of how sexual life might develop in Egypt and then wider Arab region in the coming decades.”
El Feki is an immunologist, journalist, researcher and former vice-chair of UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law; her father is Egyptian, mother Welsh, and she grew up in Canada, and now lives between Cairo and London.
The diversity she straddles is reflected in the way she handles this sensitive issue — with humour and empathy, and without being defensive or apologetic.
(Vani Saraswathi is a Qatar-based Indian journalist)