At the Jahazi Literary and Jazz Festival in Zanzibar last month, I had the privilege of chairing a session on Cosmopolitan Africa with the prize-winning author Shereen El Feki author of the award-winning book “Sex and the Citadel”. We all learnt so much from her about changing attitudes to sex across the Arab world. Here’s an excerpt with some of her comments, paraphrased below:
”The Encyclopedia of Pleasure
I want to focus on the “then and now’ aspect of this panel discussion. So, here’s a passage from an ancient self help manual. “I want to give you a piece of advice which if you take it will make you happy in life. When your husband reaches out for you when he seizes a part of your body, sigh deeply and look at him lustily. When he penetrates you talk vivaciously and move yourself in harmony with him”.
Now that’s pretty hot stuff isn’t it?. It may sound like “The Joy of Sex”, or “Cosmopolitan” but actually it comes from a 10 century manual called “The Encyclopedia of Pleasure”. What is fascinating if you look at Arab history and Islamic history is that we have this tradition throughout Islamic world including Islamic Africa of speaking very frankly, very openly about sexual matters………we talked about everything. Muslims wanted to know about menstruation, about masturbation, discussions about all kinds of sexual activity – endless endless commentary about this. This tradition continued for about 1,000 years. Fantastic books about Arab erotica, many were written by religious scholars, Imams who saw nothing incompatible in talking about needs of the flesh and needs of faith, this was integral.
Sex within Islam was seen as a gift from god, something to be celebrated, to be channeled yes, but also to be celebrated. If we flash forward to the 21st century, particularly in Egypt but across the Arab world we are looking at a very very different situation. That openness in language and ease in talking about sexual life has simply disappeared. Really what we have now is a situation where the only accepted context for sex is marriage, and this is what I call the Citadel. Anything outside that whether premarital sex, homosexuality, masturbation, abortion is an endless, endless terrain of taboo.
An Emerging Culture of Silence
We have become very very closed around matters to do with sex. And there is really a disconnect for us in the modern world today, which I also think is reflected in Zanzibari culture as well. Obviously it’s not that people are not having sex outside marriage, or that we don’t see same sex relations, it’s just that we don’t talk about it.
A culture of silence now has now emerged, reinforced by selective conservative religious interpretations and also reinforced in law. This whole situation was summed up to me very nicely by an Egyptian gynecologist, who said:
“You know Shereen in our part of the world sex is the opposite of sport, football everybody is talking about it but hardly anyone plays it, but sex everybody’s doing it but nobody talking about it”.
Let’s talk about sex
That nicely summarizes the situation because our history as Arabs is not one of being prudish about sexuality. Yet we have seen this closing down. Our challenge today is how do we find a way to open up because there are issues we have to discuss – we need to talk about HIV, about sexual violence, we need to talk about sexual unhappiness within marriage.
We need to start finding a way to talk about sex that is not just problematical sex, sex as a disorder, dysfunction, disaster or a scandal – but sex as a source of pleasure not just for men but for women and that’s what our ancestors had – they had this ability. And I argue in my book and I think this is true not just for us as Arabs but across the Muslim world, that we need to find this because its not just what happens in our private lives. Our private lives are connected to our public lives and if we don’t come to grips with some of these issues in the bedroom we are going to find it very difficult to solve them outside. Because at end of the day the sexual and the political in the Muslim world, as well across the world, are natural bedfellows.”