Skip to main content

Why Arab world must learn to talk about sex

By Shereen El Feki, Special to CNN
March 20, 2013 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
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
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2311 GMT (0711 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT