AT the height of the anti-Mubarak protests in Tahrir Square in 2011, a young man held up a sign reading, “I want to get married”. It may not sound like the most urgent political demand, but it does prove that sex gets everywhere.
Shereen El Feki’s book on sex in the Arabic-speaking world is frequently eye-popping, with its tales of female cross-dressers wearing football kit beneath their black robes, prostitutes catering to rich lesbian Saudis or pimps arranging short-lived “summer marriages” between poor teenage girls and elderly men.
The stories lend the book an anecdotal air and may draw criticism that El Feki has cherry-picked the most lurid cases.
The truth, however, is that the stories emphasise just how bewildering the issue of sex has become across the Middle East. The mix of national laws, local customs and religious edicts bring nothing but confusion, made all the more extreme because global media have opened up a public space that has never existed before.
Nineteenth-century Western writers painted a one-dimensional view of the Arabic-speaking world, yet it was not pure fantasy. The sensuality is there, and still exists.
Today, however, we are more inclined to view Arabs as puritans or hypocrites, even repressed woman-haters.
This, too, reflects a truth where, as El Feki again remarks, there has never been a public space to discuss sex.
The Muslim Brotherhood has stepped into this grey area by offering a supposedly definitive version of religious teaching. El Feki’s case studies show a more nuanced world.
Her book is an invaluable introduction to a topic that is poorly understood, even by Arabs themselves. – The Daily Telegraph