Skip to main content

Why Arab world must learn to talk about sex

By Shereen El Feki, Special to CNN
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Wed March 20, 2013
At the United Nations, governments and NGOs from around the world have been negotiating a document on the elimination of violence against women.
At the United Nations, governments and NGOs from around the world have been negotiating a document on the elimination of violence against women.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Egypt's government protested against a U.N. document on violence against women
  • Shereen El Feki says Cairo's "hysterical" reaction was nothing new
  • Politics, religion and sex are the Arab world's "three red lines," she says
  • El Feki says sexuality is a powerful lens through which to study a society

Editor's note: Shereen El Feki is the author of "Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World." She is also an award-winning journalist, broadcaster, and academic as well as the former vice-chair of the UN's Global Commission on HIV and the Law and a TED Global Fellow. Follow @shereenelfeki on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Earlier this month, a video of young men doing the "Harlem Shake" -- bare chests and thrusting pelvises -- in front of the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters in Cairo attracted worldwide attention, for putting one finger up to the moral authority of Islamic conservatives now struggling to govern Egypt.

But over in Alexandria, a soft-spoken teenage girl offered a far more unsettling challenge to the powers that be. Hebat Allah Mahmoud, a young karate enthusiast, was refused a place in her school's tournament photo because, she claimed, she does not cover her hair with a hijab.

Shereen El Feki
Shereen El Feki

Her teacher denied such charges of discrimination. Hebat Allah, however was unwilling to take this lying down. Instead, she took to YouTube, in a video in which she tearfully lambasted authorities for willful blindness and narrow-mindedness. Did they not know, she asked, that most of the girls put on the hijab at school but took it off once they left the premises? And she criticized teachers' interpretation of Islam, for insisting that the hijab was religiously mandated and that those who did not wear it were less worthy than those who covered. "We should have equal rights as stressed by the Prophet," she told the camera.

Read more: Harlem shaking the Arab world?

Hebat Allah's challenge to the one size-fits-all vision of Islam presented by Egypt's now ruling religious conservatives shifted to the international stage this week. At the United Nations, governments and NGOs from around the world have been negotiating a document on the elimination of violence against women, under the umbrella of the Commission on the Status of Women. The final text, hammered out after weeks of hard negotiation, reiterates the rights of women to lead their lives free of violence, coercion and discrimination.

The mere discussion of such issues was, however, enough to send Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood into a frenzy. "It eliminates Islamic morals, and seeks the destruction of family institution," the Brotherhood warned in an apocalyptic official statement. "Then society dissolution will occur, and last steps of cultural invasion will be complete." In urging other Muslim-majority country governments to reject the document, the Brotherhood attacked it for undermining what they consider a man's God-given right to control women (through various means, including marital rape, it seems, according to their communique), further alleging that it promotes homosexuality, adultery, abortion and free love.

GPS Last Look: Harlem Shaking in Protest
Laura Bush helping women in Egypt
Bodyguards help protesting Egypt women
Egyptian Pres. on democracy, human rights

Read more: Egyptian blogger -- why I posed naked

This hysterical response to any attempt to promote gender, sexual and reproductive rights, at the United Nations and on the ground in the Arab world, is nothing new; the Mubarak regime was just as intransigent on many of these points. And I've come across it time and again in the past five years I've spent traveling across the Arab region, talking to men and women about sex: what they do, what they don't, what they think and why. Sexuality might seem a strange focus in these tumultuous political times. It is, in fact, a powerful lens with which to study a society because it offers a view, not just into intimate life, but also of the bigger picture: politics and economics, religion and tradition, gender and generations that shape sexual attitudes and behaviors. If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.

In today's Arab world, the only socially-accepted context for sex is heterosexual, family-sanctioned, religiously-approved, state-registered marriage—a social citadel. Anything else is "forbidden", or "shameful" or "impolite." The fact that large segments of the population in most countries are having hard time fitting inside the fortress -- especially the legions of young people, who can't find jobs and therefore can't afford to marry -- is widely recognized, but there is also widespread resistance to any alternative.

The upshot of this refusal to grapple with the changing realities of sexual and personal life in the Arab world can be seen in statistics: spiraling rates of HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections, a rising tide of sexual violence, on the street and in the home, and the thriving business of clandestine abortion. And I've heard it in the stories of desperate housewives, dissatisfied husbands, conflicted youth, hard-pressed sex workers and many others whom I've met along the way

For all our constraints, the Arab world is neither hopeless, nor helpless, when it comes to sex. There are innovators from across the region who are trying to tackle the taboos, break the silence and deal with the fall out, be it getting sexuality education in schools or providing sexual and reproductive health services for young people, or tackling sexual violence, or trying to find space in society for those cross social norms, unwed mothers or men and women in same-sex relations among them. Nor are these projects simply carbon copies of efforts elsewhere in the world; the reason they are taking root is because they are adapted to the region, and work along the grain of religion and culture.

Read more: Tahrir's bodyguards fight to 'cure Egypt's disease'

Now Islamic conservatives argue otherwise. Too often, they say to tackle such matters is "un-Islamic" and a sell-out to the West. But this is simply not the case. Arab and Islamic culture has a long history of talking about sex, in its all its problems and pleasures, for men and women -- and that includes Prophet Mohammed himself. There is precious little in "Playboy," "Cosmopolitan," "The Joy of Sex," or any other taboo-busting work of the sexual revo¬lution and beyond that Arabic literature -- much of it written by Islamic scholars -- didn't touch on over a mil¬lennium ago.

On a wide variety of gender and sexual issues -- be it contraception or abortion or even the incendiary topic of homosexuality -- there are alternative interpretations in Islam. It's not just Arab human rights activists at the UN who have been making this point in recent days; Egypt's teenage karate dissident argues much the same. Those who seek to control society through religion -- in any culture -- discourage such independent thinking and diversity of opinion. But with the new climate of freedom of expression emerging in Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab region, millions now feel emboldened to challenge these dictates. Politics, religion and sex are the three "red lines" of the Arab world: subjects you're not supposed to tackle in word or deed. But just as people in countries across the region are busy contesting received wisdoms in politics, and are starting to challenge the role of religion in public policy, I hope they will start asking the same hard questions of sexual life.

Read more: Don't lose hope over Arab Spring

The "slippery slope" logic reflected in the Muslim Brotherhood's statement remains all too common in across the region. It's the fear that any move toward greater personal freedom -- especially sexual freedom -- will lead to a free-for-all and a violation of Islamic principles. But this reflects a fundamental lack of trust in the citizenry, which is a feature of dictatorship, not the hallmark of democracy. If Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood wants to walk the talk of freedom and justice, dignity and equality, that means giving people information and resources and trusting them to use it responsibly -- in and out of the bedroom. Achieving these goals in personal life is important to realizing them in public life, and vice versa: the political and sexual are natural bedfellows.

Read more: Kate's breasts, Pussy Riot, virginity tests and our attitude on women's bodies

The opinions expressed in this opinion piece are solely those of Shereen El Feki.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT