Sex and the Citadel by Shireen El Feki

With my aesthetic preferences, my world is often only made of pretty things like fashion, poetry, art, chocolate, literature and such. My mind conveniently filters out the grime that coats out daily lives. I stopped reading the newspaper for the lack of time, but I find myself happier for it. On social media, my eyes are unseeing of the steady stream of outrage on the state of this country. I bullishly swim upstream, spouting poetic lines when everyone else is talking about rape and murder and mayhem.

So It helps to pepper ones reading list with hard-hitting non-fiction books to bring one back to ground realities from time to time. I like my share of 'real life' in measured doses - in books like Sex and the Citadel by Shireen El Feki.

Feki, who is an award-winning journalist, a writer, broadcaster, an academic, the vice chair of UN's Global Commission on HIV and the Law and a TED Global Fellow. With extensive experience in the field of sexual health, Feki writes this commentary on the sociosexual life in the Arab world with great insight and authority. The book is not only an excellent social commentary on the contemporary Muslim world but also an eye opener on many subjects apart from the sexual. The author's Islamic background and her Western upbringing puts her at an great vantage point and makes her writing credible.

'Sex and the Citadel' is divided into many clear chapters pertaining to sexual issues. The first chapter gives the reader an overview of the the Arab society's stance on all matters sexual. It is surprising to learn that there was once a fairly liberal system in place where practices like homosexuality, and even prostitution were not just tolerated but considered normal. Feki cites several literary instances that have spoken explicitly on sex and its many possibilities. Following political upheavals in the late 1800s, the Arab world's stance on sexuality changed, thanks to the likes of Hassan Al Banna and Sayyid Qutb. These men blamed Egypt's decline to Western culture and turned to Sharia laws to revive the region's Islamist glory. And that was the beginning of the downward spiral.

One can't help but be reminded one of the India that once produced Kama Sutra and erotic temple art of Khajuraho and in time turned into a land of prudes due to religious and political influences.

The next chapter, titled 'Desperate Housewives' is one of the longest in the book deals with the plight of the average niqab'd or hijab'd Arab housewife, who has little or no say in the bedroom or outside it. The problems for the girl child begin early on with customs like female circumcision, and only multiply with practices like the very public test of virginity, limited access to legal aid or medical care with regards contraception, pregnancy or abortion. Feki interviews many 'regular' people through the course of this book to understand the nature of the sexual problems that plague the country. She also speaks to a few firebrand women who are slowly but surely challenging the norms and helping lend voice to the otherwise silent Arab woman.

The third chapter is titled 'Sex and the Single Arab' and boldly discusses the biggest of all hush hush subjects - premarital sex. Feki speaks of the lengths to which single women go to preserve their virginity and the sexual frustration of young men who do not have the resources to marry among other things. One interesting thing I learnt from this chapter was that in Islam, there are various kinds of marriage. Many single people in love opt for a relatively hassle-free form of marriage called Urfi so they may have sex with some form of religious sanction and thus a clear conscience. 'Proper' marriages are, of course, the kind that is solemnised before the court, a religious representative and the community.

'Facts of Life', the fourth chapter illuminates the reader on the sad state of sexual education (which is pretty much the case everywhere), the depiction of sex in film and the media, the general misconceptions and taboos surrounding sex and a handful of brave men ad women challenging this state of affairs with the help of new age media. Feki also discusses how access to the Internet has significantly changed attitudes about sex among youngsters, even if this attitudinal shift is not easy to see.

The fifth chapter is dedicated to the business of flesh, aptly titled 'Sex for Sale'. Though officially illegal, prostitution manages to thrive in dark discreet alleys in Egypt and its neighbouring nations. Like in most nations of the world, most women are pushed into prostitution for financial necessity. It reflects the sad plight of women in the Arab world who have little recourse to a 'normal' and respectable life due to limited education and job opportunities. Feki also throws in bits about activism in this area as she is wont to do in all chapters.

In 'Dare to be Different', the author brings to light a marginalised community in not just the Arab world, but everywhere - transgenders. The chapter talks about the struggle of these people in accessing surgical and hormonal treatments in the first place, and then acceptance.

'Come the Revolution' sums up the contents of the book beautifully, and if you do not have the patience to read the whole book (it can seem boring and lengthy at times), read at least this one. Feki acknowledges how the revolution at Tahrir Square changed the old world order in Egypt forever, and how it will hopefully bring positive changes in the Arab world. Egypt's second wave of mass protests are being held even as I write this review. As Feki's brave work predicts, Arab's social soil is ready to be sown with the seeds of change.

Author: Shireen El Feki
Publisher: Random House
Copy source: Publisher
ISBN: 9780701183165
Binding: Paperback
No. of pages: 293 + notes and glossary


  1. You said it...and I love the review-quote on the cover.
    Important,brave and necessary.

  2. Talitha, my dear girl, you always notice the right things.


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