Studying women's rights in Arab world through sex
Posted on Jan 26 2014 | IANS
By Shilpa Raina, Jaipur, Jan 26 : What goes on inside bedrooms reflects the politics of a system, believes British author of Egyptian descent Shereen el Feki, who in her debut book has used sex as a lens to peep into the conservative lives of the Arabs and has correlated it with the stifled voices of women at various levels - from politics to economics - in the Arab world, especially Egypt.
"I am a firm believer that what goes on behind the closed doors of the bedroom is a reflection of your society and what shapes your outlook," El Feki, a writer, a broadcaster and an academician who was here for the just-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, told IANS in an interview.
"If you look at control in the Arab world, especially in the political system, which is by and large patriarchal and highly authoritarian, you can see the same played out inside the bedroom," she added.
She said a woman is curtailed from expressing her sexual desires even within marriage, which is the only socially accepted system.
This half-Egyptian, half-Welsh, who extensively writes on sexuality and social change in the Arab world, stressed the need for women in conservative Islamic world to be comfortable about sexuality.
"If women don't feel comfortable talking about sex, desire and ambition, how do we expect them to restore themselves within the parliament and board rooms? That is why talking about sexual rights is not an afterthought. It has to be a part of bigger package of achieving rights and freedom for all," said El Feki, who is also a member of the United Nations Global Commission on HIV and Law.
In promoting her book "Sex and the Citadel" at the Festival, El Feki, with her wonderful stage presence, affable personality, and great sense of humour, talked openly about this "taboo" and "discriminated" subject and admitted how her "insider-outsider" status helped people to open up to her.
"It was amazing how these people opened up to me because of my insider-outsider status. The fact that I am a Westerner and I won't judge them for talking about sex worked for me. They spoke to me knowing that the sex talk won't make them bad women," said the author, whose book throws light on the intimate lives of ordinary 21st century Arabs.
"I look really like a Westerner and when they saw me, they saw the West. Surprisingly, the women opened up to me and so did men because they thought sex could be discussed without me getting judgmental about them," she added.
Because of her personal connection with Egypt, the book mainly focusses on a region that has seen much political turmoil in the past three years though she also travelled to countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Syria, and Algeria, and spoke with married women, homosexuals, unmarried Arab women and men for the book that took five years in the making.
"When I started writing my notes, it was for the HIV work I was doing in these regions. But then I realised sex became a powerful lens to look into the system," she said.
It was during El Feki's close interactions with HIV patients in the Arab world and North Africa that she observed that the Arab world was still in a denial mode to accept the harsh reality of rising HIV epidemic in the region.
"So deep-rooted is the stigma related to HIV that the Arabs are not confronting the issue," she said.
"HIV is something that we have denied we have, and there are only two parts of the world where HIV deaths are on the rise and we are one of them. Facing up to HIV means facing up to sex," she added, saying this rise points out at social evils conservative societies are succumbing to.
"Such a trend clearly means people are having sex outside their marriage, they are using drugs. We should offer sex education and trust people and not be like dictators and not trust society. But in a country where talking about condom is considered taboo, how can we discuss sex openly?" she questioned.
"The more you stigmatise HIV, the more you are driving underground activity. Just by saying we don't have it, or it is only bad people who get is incorrect and not the way forward," she added.
She hoped political stability in Egypt resumes soon and whosoever comes to power in the upcoming election has trust on its people and doesn't behave like a militarily dictator.
Egypt has been undergoing turmoil ever since widespread protests toppled president Hosni Mubarak in Jan 2011. The Mohammad Morsi government that came to power was overthrown by the army after a year and a referendum just held has approved a new constitution after which elections are to be held.
(Shilpa Raina can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)