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Elif Shafak

Lifting the Veil

Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World
By Shereen El Feki (Chatto & Windus 344pp £14.99)

On a Turkish Airlines flight from London to Istanbul my five-year-old son demands to go to the toilet - 'Now!' Recognising the urgency in his tone, I spring to my feet and grab him, not realising in my haste that I have left the book I have been reading on an empty seat, face up. There are two Turkish ladies in my row: middle class, middle-aged, similarly attired. Upon returning to our seats I catch them peeking at the cover, whispering and giggling like schoolgirls. When they see me coming, they blush with guilt but then turn and eye me curiously. Their expressions seem to ask, 'Are you reading a book on sex? And next to your children? What has this world come to?' Such is the effect of carrying around Shereen El Feki's Sex and the Citadel.

For a moment I feel a strong urge to speak with these women, to enquire about their sexual lives, past and present, real and imaginary. I don't, but the author of Sex and the Citadel has performed this daunting task - raising 'unabashed' questions and searching for honest answers, trying to render visible the invisible and to give voice to the real stories behind the wall of silence.

From Gustave Flaubert's extra-literary adventures on the bawdy streets of Cairo to the repercussions of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and the writings of Sayyid Qutb, whose views have influenced religious fundamendalists for decades, the book's early pages are cluttered and haphazard. However, the narration soon finds its riverbed. From then on, El Feki offers a compelling discussion of her subject, accompanied by an array of lively characters from the contemporary Middle East: a young man in Tahrir Square holding a placard addressed to President Mubarak that reads, 'Go, I want to Get Married'; a Moroccan sociologist who decided to specialise in sexuality after reading Wilhelm Reich in 1970s; an Egyptian wife whose life, beneath the surface of ordinariness, resembles the layers in One Thousand and One Nights; a Palestinian woman who commutes between Haifa and Ramallah, and is the founder of the Arab Forum for Sexuality, Education and Health; housewives who discuss sexuality in the privacy of their homes once they unpin their hijab; youngsters dressed to kill at all-female wedding parties where potential mothers-in-law choose brides for their sons; volunteers working at a telephone helpline to answer questions on sex; female Arab university students who both challenge their families' conventions and feel constrained by them; Hasan, an LGBT activist from Tunisia; NGOs helping sex workers in Unicef's Fight Against AIDS campaign; professionals and idealists, men and women, whose struggles and strengths reflect the complexity of Arab daily life.

El Feki, an award-winning journalist, is a scientist by training and the former vice-chair of the UN's Global Commission on HIV and the Law. Although she focuses primarily on Egypt, interviewing people from diverse backgrounds, the issues she explores resonate across the entire Muslim world and beyond. Blending her personal observations with case studies, sociological analysis and statistical information - not to mention the wise sayings of Nuna Aziza, her Muslim grandmother - she presents a rich account of gender and sexuality. From chapters entitled 'Desperate Housewives' to 'Sex for Sale' and 'Dare to be Different', this is a journey into the heart of a region about which we talk and write so much and yet, in truth, know so little.

Throughout the region the average marriage age has risen. Films, magazines, books, social media and soap operas make it possible to raise questions about established gender patterns. While opinion polls indicate that across the Arab world young people tend to be more conservative than their parents, El Feki points out that when one talks with them in private one gets a different picture. Most of the gender rhetoric is based on social roles. And it is precisely this gap between the public image and the private life that El Feki wants to probe.

The Arab Spring took many politicians, diplomats, journalists, scholars and experts by surprise. Since the start of the uprisings the need to understand the region from within has finally begun to overcome the tendency to judge it from afar. What do young generations in the Middle East really want? How do women feel about the roles of womanhood and motherhood? Suddenly questions about everyday life and 'common people' - instead of the military or the political elite - have become important. Most significantly, a cliché has been shattered. Muslim societies are no longer thought to be incapable of transforming themselves or in need of outside 'guidance' to incite socio-political change. It is now widely recognised that no society is monolithic or isolated. And no society, even the most authoritarian, is immune to change.

But if the Middle East is ever-changing and fast-moving, where does the study of gender and sexuality fit in this liquid universe? 'Sexual attitudes and behaviors are intimately bound up in religion, tradition, culture, politics and economics,' El Feki writes. 'As such, sexuality is a mirror of the conditions that led to these uprisings, and it will be a measure of the progress of hard-won reforms in the years to come.' By promoting objective research and exchange of information, and making the subject easier for people to discuss, the lid can be lifted and the pressure released.

Concomitantly, throughout human history, women have played an active part and acquired equal status during times of social upheaval. Yet they have been the first ones to be sent home as soon as power has been consolidated and a new elite formed. Women's issues have rarely been on the list of priorities of new regimes. If revolutions eat their children, as they say, they consume their daughters first. It is too early to draw conclusions about the present situation but the model might be recurring once again. In Tahrir Square in 2011 we saw women of all ages, sects and religions voicing their demands, fighting for dignity, freedom and change. These days another wind blows, one that gingerly pushes them back to the private space, as mothers and wives first and foremost, limiting the dirty work of politics to men.

El Feki argues that there are still 'red lines' and these include questions not only about religion and politics but also about sexuality. In fact, it can be easier to change political taboos than sexual ones. But she is also quick to remind us that even the latter are neither frozen nor impermeable. In fact, they flow like calligraphy. The world we know today was not always so. Once it was easier to talk about sex - including homosexuality and bisexuality - in the Middle East than in the capitals of the West. Cultures and perceptions have changed, and they keep doing so today.

At no point in the book does El Feki point an accusing finger at a specific culture, religion or ethnicity. At no point does she judge or preach, even when she asks the most difficult questions about domestic violence, honour killing, homophobia and incest. It is rare to come across a writer who embraces liberal democracy and its essential freedoms for women, and at the same time does not patronise societies that are neither liberal nor fully democratic.

Sex and the Citadel is a gentle lamp that sheds light on the darkest corners. Years ago, as one of the first students of Gender and Women's Studies at the Middle East Technical University, I devoured the Tunisian sociologist Abdelwahab Bouhdiba's groundbreaking Sexuality in Islam. Shereen El Feki's book is along the same lines, but with her 'compassionate criticism' she takes a bigger, bolder step forward. This is a brave, constructive and critical book that unites rather than divides, and attempts to understand rather than to compare and contrast. I cannot wait to see it translated into Turkish. Perhaps then the ladies on the plane will read it, blushing slightly, but understanding that the writer is holding a mirror up to them in a way that few writers from the region have dared to do before.

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Elif Shafak is the author of eight novels, including The Bastard of Istanbul, The Forty Rules of Love and Honour. She is also a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.

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