Sex, Social Change, and Politics in the Arab World

An Interview with author and activist Shereen El-Feki on how sexual rights can foster democracy and vice versa.
By: /
August 6, 2014
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Global Journalism Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto

To understand social and political change in the Arab world, we need to look at what’s happening in the bedroom, argues Shereen El Feki, a Canadian journalist, academic and activist who holds a PhD in immunology from Cambridge. El Feki, who is half-Egyptian and half-Welsh, started examining the connection between sex and politics in the early 2000s. She was surprised by the relatively low rates of HIV in the Middle East and North Africa while writing about global health for The Economist, but quickly discovered that there was a gap between the official statistics and reality. “I was meeting whole families who were infected and was hearing the increasingly urgent pleas of those working quietly to stop the epidemic,” she writes. It wasn’t possible to understand what was happening with HIV in the region without understanding the politics of sex: the official statistics were wrong because people weren’t willing to face up to the realities of sex outside of marriage.

El Feki ended up spending five years studying the role of sex in society in Egypt and other Arab countries for her 2013 book Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. She concluded that sexual rights – the right to have control over and decide freely on matters related to one’s sexuality – can go a long way in fostering democracy—and vice versa. OpenCanada reporter Alia Dharssi spoke to her about the recent upheavals in the Arab world and the connection between sex and social change.

In your book, you argue that if you really want to understand politics in the Arab region, you should look at life in the bedroom. Can you explain the connection?

Dictatorships – patriarchies at the political level – are connected to patriarchy at the family level. If you want to see change at the political level – why millions of people took to the streets in the Arab world in 2011 and beyond – it’s not enough to create the public structures of democracy. You have to root these principles in personal life and, indeed, in sexual life. We have to pay attention to individual rights not just on paper, but also on the ground. There’s no point in grand aspirations for women’s political, economic and social rights if women don’t have the ability to express themselves in marriage. How are they going to be full participants in the boardroom if they can’t do that in the bedroom?

That’s one of the reasons my book is popular in India. One woman put it to me quite bluntly: “I read your book and I saw my life. This is the everyday experience that I have as an Indian woman.” India is the Global South’s oldest democracy. It has all the political structures that we dream of having in Egypt and in many of our neighbouring countries. Yet, look at the lives of women and the level of sexual violence against them. Creating democratic institutions is not enough. The grand principles of justice and freedom need to be anchored in personal life. Without change at the family level, how much do these structures really mean? You have the façade of democracy, but do you have the reality of it?

What I also found fascinating was that, unlike in Western countries, Indians focused on the solutions I talk about in the book. Western readings of my book tend to focus on the problems and the taboos, but, in India, people say: “We know the problems. Enough already. How are we going to get out of this mess? Does anyone have a plan?”

What is the plan? What kinds of solutions did you see?

Well, it took me five years to write the book because I was amazed at how many people were doing incredibly creative things to push back on taboos. To give you one example, a fantastic new website called “Hubb Thaqafa” (“Love is Culture”) was launched earlier this year in Egypt and provides scientifically accurate information about sexual life. This is very rare in the Arab region. Most online material in Arabic is from a very conservative Islamic perspective. They’ve done a brilliant job of using social media to talk about sex in socially acceptable way and its popularity is growing like wildfire because there’s hundreds of thousands of people who want accurate information about these issues.

Abortion law is another interesting issue because it illustrates the flexibility within Islam. Abortion law is highly restrictive in most Arab countries, but women have abortions anyway. The Moroccan Association of Family Planning reports that 600 illegal abortions happen each day in Morocco, but there’s a movement in Morocco to make abortion more widely available. Instead of talking about “legalisation,” they talk about “liberalisation.” Chafik Charibi, the leader of one NGO pushing for change and the head of gynecology and obstetrics at a major maternity hospital in the capital, says he doesn’t talk about abortion-on-demand because it’s not going to happen in his lifetime. He takes a pragmatic view of achieving change through gradual steps forward because of conservative religious interpretations that presently hold sway in Morocco.

All of the successful examples I give in the book, whether they’re about getting sex education into schools or reaching out to female sex workers, work with the grain of culture. And they work slowly. The key for outsiders interested in funding initiatives, particularly those for women’s rights, is to listen to people on the ground when they tell you they need to do things differently than in other parts of the world. In some quarters of the West, there’s a tendency to think that because the “sexual revolution” occurred in this part of the world, it’s a trail everyone else is going to follow, but different societies are taking different routes.

What kinds of problems have arisen when those trying to help didn’t listen to people on the ground?

Well, with respect to LGBT rights, there have been attempts to fund nascent groups that essentially consist of two guys and a computer and to push them into overly ambitious projects, like trying to de-criminalize homosexuality. But for as long as women’s sex outside of marriage is illegal, why would you expect to see the de-criminalization of homosexuality? These groups take a focussed agenda on gay rights that worked in the West because the West has a foundation that recognizes individual rights, built over hundreds of years. That doesn’t exist in the Arab region.

In the case of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Egypt, decades of efforts are starting to bear fruit, but it hasn’t been easy. Early anti-FGM campaigns, which were spearheaded by Egyptians themselves, made a health argument that it’s unsafe to have FGM done by a traditional midwife, so mothers decided to have their girls circumcised by doctors and nurses. Now, 75 percent of female circumcision is done in a medical setting, which makes it harder to eradicate.

Similarly, we have seen fantastic gains in female education in the Middle East and North Africa, but now there’s a generation of highly educated women who can’t find husbands, in part because we didn’t bring men on board in embracing gender equality. If a woman doesn’t get married, it’s not socially acceptable for her to move out of her family’s home, have sex outside of marriage, or have children. These women are stuck. That’s what happens when you don’t connect the dots.

Now there is a new generation coming to the fore. They are better-educated than their parents, have more access to the outside world and generally want religion to be part of their lives. It is important to think about how to bring religion into the equation. That can seem odd to many people who work on sexual rights internationally and see religion as counter to change, but we won’t get change on the ground in the Arab region if we don’t work with the grain of Islam or Christianity.

In addition to bottom-up solutions, what kinds of changes would you like to see come from the top?

Well, economic reform could change the dynamic inside and outside of the bedroom. How much autonomy can women have in Egypt, for example, if only 25 percent of them are in the work force? It’s not, of course, that getting women into jobs is going to give them greater sexual rights automatically, but it is part of a wider process.

Laws, which are deeply unequal across the Arab region, also need to change. Women aren’t allowed to work in certain professions, often can’t pass their nationality onto their children, and may need permission from their guardian to travel or study. In Egypt, the law lets a man charge his wife for adultery if he finds her having sex anywhere with another man, but a woman has to find her husband having sex in the marital bed to charge him. We have a law in Egypt that criminalizes female genital mutilation (FGM), but the first prosecution took place only this year. The law doesn’t mean much if people have little faith in the government that crafts it or if is unforced unfairly. So law is a necessary, but far from sufficient condition for social change.

Educational reform is key, particularly education around religion, so that people can ask hard questions of what is possible with the parameters of their faith. But it isn’t enough to have education in the classroom. We also need to focus on what is happening in the living room, and in particular on the dynamic between mothers and their sons. If we don’t change inequality in the household, where boys are raised to be superior to their sisters—then we will never come to grips with inequality in the schoolroom, the workplace or the bedroom.

In your book, you mention that, in some cases, the 2011 uprisings in Egypt led to more open discussion about sexual norms. What changes have you seen since then?

Well, when it comes to sexual rights, dealing with them in isolation of other fundamental rights results in a piecemeal approach that isn’t sustainable. For example, a new law has been passed criminalizing sexual harassment and we have seen some very high-profile convictions involving sentences of life imprisonment. But how much does that really mean in a political system in which members of the opposition are now again being routinely arrested? There has been a lot of repression in the name of state security. Journalists are under pressure. Gross human rights violations are still occurring. These things have a chilling effect on all aspects of life. The great hopes of the uprising of 2011 across the Arab region have mellowed. Nonetheless, people speak out more now than they did before—irrespective of the efforts of governments to clamp down on dissent—and that’s beneficial to all aspects of life, including intimate life.

You’ve said that studying sexuality has helped you to understand the pace of change in the Arab World. Can you tell me more about that?

As I said, it’s not that things aren’t changing in the Arab region. They just don’t change very fast and they often don’t change in a way familiar to Westerners. Islam isn’t black and white on most issues related to women and sexuality. It has at least fifty shades of gray. People are already exploring those possibilities, but the international media’s presentation of what’s happening in Egypt and many of its neighbours is very dark. There are enormous problems and abuses, but there are also small, promising changes happening across the region.

Aicha Ech-Chenna, the founder of an NGO that helps unmarried women and their children in Morocco, says that human rights in the Arab region are like water in the desert. If they fall in a heavy downpour, the land cannot absorb it and the water will run off. It has to go drip, drip, drip. We have to cultivate the desert piece by piece and ensure that growth is sustainable before we move to the next area.

These broader changes that I’m talking about are going to take a generation, even if we start now. The young people who were at the forefront of the uprising in Tahrir Square in Egypt openly said to me that this revolution, as they call it, is too late for them. It will not really change their lives, but maybe, just maybe, it will make a difference to their children. At the end of the day, what we are talking about is sexual evolution, not revolution.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.