Sexual politics and the Mideast: Does the Arab Spring need a Summer of Love?

Sex in the Middle East
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Story highlights

  • Sex is bound up in shame for many in Mideast -- particularly women, says Shereen El Feki
  • El Feki: Cairo comedian's humorous take on sex is a welcome development
  • El Feki: Change will come slowly -- evolution, not revolution, is what's needed

Shereen El Feki is the author of "Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World," a study of changing sexual attitudes and behaviors across the Arab region. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

Cairo, Egypt (CNN)In a packed Cairo theater a couple of months ago, Ali Qandil brought down the house.

"Why do Egyptian fathers cry at their daughters' weddings?" the comedian asked the crowd. "Because they know their little girls will be having sex for the first time."
    In Egypt's current conservative climate, Qandil's well-aimed thrust at sexual taboos was enough to send the audience into stitches, even as the theater management reached for its smelling salts.
    The show was courtesy of Al-Hubb Thaqafa ("Love is Culture"), a groundbreaking social media platform offering straight talk on love, sex and relationships in Arabic. Launched just over a year ago, its website, YouTube channel and social feeds have attracted more than nine million visitors, mainly from Egypt and Morocco.
    Al-Hubb Thaqafa's no-nonsense approach to sex, offering accurate information on everything from the basic facts of life to the finer points of fellatio, is a welcome development in a region where teachers are often too embarrassed to communicate even the barebones sexual and reproductive curriculum on offer, and parents generally draw a veil of silence over such topics with their kids.
    For Ali Qandil, sex is an endless source of humor -- just as it is anywhere else in the world. But on the face of it, sex is no laughing matter across the Arab region.
    In recent weeks, accounts of the arrest and abuse of dozens of gay men and transsexual women in Egypt, or mass sexual exploitation under ISIS' reign of terror, or Morocco's recent ban on a new film which lays bare the country's thriving sex trade, do little to dispel the image of societies mired in sexual repression.
    But by emphasizing sex as a pleasure to be enjoyed, rather than a problem to be solved, Al-Hubb Thaqafa hearkens to a long tradition of free and frank exchange on sexual matters in Arabic. Short of cybersex and internet porn, there isn't much its platforms tackle that our forefathers from weren't writing about more than a millennium ago.
    There is nothing un-Islamic about talking about sex; indeed, many of the great works of Arabic erotica were written by religious scholars. But over the centuries, and in particular in recent decades with rise of Islamic fundamentalism, societies across the Arab region have become far less comfortable in their sexual skin.
    Al-Hubb Thaqafa offers a chance (in part by reclaiming Arabic as a language of sexuality and offering a "respectable" alternative to street slang) for men and women to talk each other about sex -- asking questions, sharing personal experiences and contesting each other's opinions without the usual embarrassment or censure.
    Such opportunities are all too rare offline. It's been two years since I published "Sex and the Citadel" -- a five-year investigation into sexual attitudes and behaviors across the Arab region, and their intersection with politics and economics, religion and tradition, gender and generations. Since then, the grand political aspirations which fed the Arab Spring have either frosted over, as in Egypt, or burnt up in the conflagration now consuming Libya, Yemen and Syria.
    Sex might seem an odd focus these days, given all the other pressing issues in the region. But it is never far from politics, as authoritarian powers -- be they military-backed presidents or religious extremists -- know only too well, using matters of flesh, wrapped in selective interpretations of Islam, to clamp down on their communities.
    This is sadly true beyond the borders of the Middle East as well. But the converse also holds. Realizing the rallying cries of the recent uprisings -- "freedom", "justice" and "dignity" -- in private life will, in the long run, have profound implications for public life as well.
    When it comes to sex, it is never black and white, as conservatives would have us believe. In this, as with so many other aspects of life, there are at least 50 shades of gray.
    On my travels, I've met men and women across the Arab region who are exploring that spectrum. Doctors like Chafik Chraibi, a Moroccan obstetrician whose efforts to open up his country's restrictive abortion laws have helped to catalyze a recent small step in legal reform. Educators like Safa Tamish, a Palestinian living in Israel, who is working to get sex education into schools and families across the West Bank. Or activists like the founders of Chouf and Damj, two new Tunisian NGOS, which are among the dozens of groups across the region trying to find a place for men and women whose sexualities or gender identities break the mold.
    There are many, many more such initiatives -- combating sexual violence, or securing the rights of unwed mothers or providing sexual health services to unmarried youth, for example -- springing up across the Middle East, often on very rocky ground. The most successful work slowly, along the grain of religion and culture.
    Confrontation -- be it political protests in Tahrir Square or Femen-style baring of breasts -- is not the way to achieve tangible, durable change in the Arab region, as recent events have clearly demonstrated.
    For too many -- particularly women -- sex is still bound up in shame, which makes it a powerful tool of political and social control. Sexual freedoms are hard to exercise when family interests trump individual choice, or when appearance counts for more than reality -- when virginity is defined by a piece of anatomy -- an intact hymen -- rather than a state of chastity, or when prostitution masquerades as marriage between wealthy visitors and desperate refugees.
    Shifting the political, economic and social conditions which underpin these realities is the work of a generation at least. But at least in a few places, positive change is slowly taking root. As my Egyptian grandmother used to say, "If there were seeds for patience, I would have planted fields." In other words, what we need is a sexual evolution, not revolution.