Culture & Conversation

Veils of Grey

Shereen El Feki’s Sex and the Citadel is neither a book on sexual pleasure nor a Middle Eastern Fifty Shades of Grey, unless of course, knowledge and awareness qualifies as a turn-on. In addition to being an academic, journalist and TED Global fellow, Shereen El Feki is the Vice-Chair and Commissioner of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law. Her research for Sex and the Citadel took her on a fascinating five-year journey through the Arab world with countless discussions on the one subject no one dares to discuss: sex.

According to El Feki, for true social, political, economic change, attitudes must first change in the bedroom. I had the opportunity to sit down with the author on a chilly Friday morning in Montreal.

Michel Foucault wrote in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 3. “Sex was not a moral issue, but something erotic and normal.” The rise of bourgeoisie in the 17th century resulted in a change in the status quo and the emergence of a sexual taboo. Sex for pleasure was merely wasted energy. Instead citizens were to focus their attention on work, making the bourgeoisie wealthier. Sex was meant to be strictly a means of reproduction, a view echoed by the Church. Tell me about how sex was perceived in the early Muslim world.
Early Islamic civilization was a period of great creativity in the arts and philosophy, leading to the renaissance. Their attitudes towards sex were very liberal, where even pre-17th Europeans of that period spent much of their time criticizing Arab culture for sexual licentiousness.

You state that “this confidence and creativity” extended to people’s sex lives. What do you mean by that?
This confidence and creativity were reflected in literature, particularly in Arab erotica, with the exploration of sexual themes. There was an ease with sexual matters, an open-mindedness in the early Abbasids policies when much of the writing was done by the Islamic clergy.

Then how did the Arab/Muslim world end up with the pervasive patriarchy it has today?
It’s no coincidence that the end of a culturally rich and sexually liberal period coincided with the beginning of colonialism. The upper classes were quick to adopt European views critical of our sexual mores. Colonial superiority had a huge impact on societal attitudes toward sex.

One reason I wanted to write this book was because of the stories I heard from my father and grandmother. They spoke of an era not so long ago when our sexual lives were far simpler. However, if we fast-forward to the 21st century, anything even vaguely viewed as sexually liberal is branded an import from the West.

With the rise of Islamic conservatism, a discussion on sexuality and the sexual rights of women have become impossible. The monolithic interpretation we are given, a single vision that is so austere and unforgiving, is dismaying.

The 2008 porn star of the year, Sasha Grey, once said that porn was a means of self-exploration, a central premise in Sex and the Citadel. Is this not reason enough to contest such restrictions?
Excess is the argument that the ultra-conservative Wahhabis and Salafis always raise. The authoritarian attitude is that any shift may result in zina (sexual transgression). More trust is needed.

The traditions of Muhammad include his interaction with transgendered communities and his acknowledgement of homosexual practices. Yet, the ultra-conservatives deny both of these traditions. How can these misconceptions be remedied?
The key is to provide sex and religious education so young people can use reasoning to seek the truth (ijtihad). A far greater challenge is to create a forum on sexual issues for frank discussion, without fear of reprisals.

According to Bouhdiba’s 1975 Sexuality in Islam, the exercise of sexuality was a prayer, a gift of oneself, an act of charity. To rediscover the meaning of sexuality was to rediscover the meaning of God. Are these “sex is sacred” teachings akin to 7th century Tantric scripture known as Kama Sutra?
I can’t comment on Tantric scripture. Within an Islamic context, the teachings in essence celebrate the power of sex. Sex was a source of pleasure and empowerment. Nowadays, sex is only discussed in terms of scandals and catastrophes.

I’m not a sexual salafi, or someone who advocates living by our past sexual mores. However, we need to use our past in order to answer some contemporary questions. The Prophet Muhammad was a man of pragmatism, who understood human weakness. He would understand our personal experiences and find a way to reconcile our faith with the reality of our lives.


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