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Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World [Hardcover]

Shereen El Feki
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

March 12 2013
In the political unrest that swept across the Arab region in 2011, all eyes were on the streets and squares erupting in protest. But for the past four years, Shereen El Feki has been looking at upheaval a little closer to home -- in the sexual lives of men and women across the Arab world. The result is Sex and the Citadel, an informative, insightful and engaging account of a highly sensitive and still largely secret aspect of Arab society.

Sex might seem a strange lens with which to examine change in the Arab world; it is, in fact, a prism with which to refract the region's complex social spectrum. Sexual attitudes and behaviours are intimately bound up in religion, culture, politics and economics. As such, they are not only a reflection of the conditions that led to the recent uprisings, as well as one of the engines of revolt, but will also be a measure of hard-won reforms in the
years to come.

Sex and the Citadel is no peep show. By linking sexuality to political, economic, social and religious trends, it opens a window on the greater landscape of the Arab world, both for readers new to the region whose interest has been sparked by recent events, and for old hands familiar with the Arab world. Nor is the book an academic treatise: this is a highly personal account, rich with original research and first-person stories, that gives us unprecedented and timely insight into a part of the world that is transforming in front of our very eyes.

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Review

Sex in the Citadel should be celebrated – not least for freeing voices silenced by a mixture of taboo and political repression. It provides crucial oxygen for discussions that will need more airing in the long, conflicted years ahead.”
The Independent

Sex and the Citadel provides a detailed account of a veiled and sensitive aspect of Arab society.”
The Los Angeles Times

“The author is forever open, buoyant, and always willing to share the details of first person encounters. Assertive and undeterred when approaching even the most sensitive or taboo of subjects, Dr. El Feki demonstrates an effortless ability to tell a story, making for a highly readable examination of Arab life.”
The New York Journal of Books

“Mandatory reading for anyone seeking to truly know the Middle East, Sex and the Citadel should knock the doors off assumptions held dear by so many Westerners.”
Booklist, starred review

“A daring new study. El Feki… embarks on her subject with healthy doses of humour and irony… With personal stories bolstered by facts and figures, El Feki looks at the tensions between what is halal (permitted under Islamic law) and haram (forbidden) or zina (downright debauchery). She also discusses sex education, abortion, pornography, homosexuality, and even lingerie and cross-dressing….A surprisingly open, extremely timely examination.”
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“A supremely eye-opening book.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education

“A clear wakeup call.”
Publishers Weekly  

“Her findings are endlessly intriguing. . . . Where this book excels is in locating the territory in which traditional morality collides with the encroaching modern world.”
The Times (UK)
 
“A remarkable book.”
The Huffington Post
 
“No one could ever accuse Shereen El Feki of lacking in courage. . . . Sex and the Citadel is a bold, meticulously researched mini Kinsey Report, rich in anecdote and statistics.”
The Spectator (UK)

“[El Feki] is frank, nonjudgmental and unsentimental, eschewing the kind of stagey shockability that might have tempted a lesser writer when dealing with topics as unsavory as female genital mutilation or domestic violence.”
San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Shereen El Feki’s book on sex in the Arabic-speaking world is frequently eye-popping. . . . [Sex and the Citadel] is an invaluable introduction to a topic that is poorly understood, even by Arabs themselves.”
The Telegraph (UK)

“El Feki’s account is deeply sensible and well judged, her approach open and informative rather than illicit and structured and sociological instead of scandalous. . . . Sex and the Citadel wisely prefers statistics to sensationalism.... This is a principled book, robustly educative and illuminating without consenting to the kind of vacant voyeurism that the intimate life veiled by Islam can provoke in unthinking outsiders. It is often a respectful as well as curious book, gently prodding the problems it recognises without censure.”
The Times Higher Education

Sex and the Citadel is informative and well written. It is also hilarious. Frequently irreverent and at times gently sarcastic, as the book’s title suggests, Feki doesn’t allow the serious subject matter to dampen her lively sense of humor. . . . The author’s informal style . . . makes for an absorbing and engaging read. . . . Feki’s book is a riveting read, bound to provide interesting, if inappropriate, dinner table conversation for some time to come.”
The Daily Star

“Shereen El Feki is a brave woman. . . . a fascinating survey of sex that is rich in detail.”
The Economist

About the Author

Shereen El Feki is a writer, broadcaster, and academic who started her professional life in medical science before going on to become an award-winning journalist with The Economist and a presenter with Al Jazeera English. She is former vice-chair of the UN's Global Commission on HIV and the Law, as well as a TED Global Fellow. Shereen writes for a number of publications, among them The Huffington Post. With roots in Egypt and Wales, Shereen grew up in Canada; she now divides her time between London and Cairo.


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Great Sociological Discussion Aug. 6 2013
By Bernie Koenig TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
This is a really interesting book trying to connect knowledge of sex and sexuality with an open political context: The relationship between political knowledge and sexual knowledge, and the ability to act on both.

The book was undertaken in the light of the Arab Spring and personal experiences by Ms Feki, who is half Egyptian.

She conducted interviews within all kinds of people, both men and women, and describes attitudes and practices, along with tremendous amounts of misinformation most people seem to have. Ms Feki attributes this lack of knowledge and misinformation about sexuality to both a repressive society and a male dominant one.

She covers all the main topics: men's attitudes towards women, women's expectations, female circumcision,homosexuality, prostitution, arranged temporary marriages lasting a couple of weeks, and so on.

One of the points she makes is the the newer conservative Moslems blame Western influence on open attitudes toward sexuality, but as Ms Feki shows, these attitudes are perfectly consistent with Islam, and were in place before the new conservatism arose.

I give the book 4 instead of 5 stars because as I read the book I kept thinking of parallels in our society where though we live in a relatively free society there are still forces that try to repress knowledge about sexuality, usually religious ones, but not necessarily.

But her main point is basically correct. I especially enjoyed this book since I recently read a number of books on Islam today. This book clarifies a lot, especially the differences between what the Qu'ran says, and what legitimate scholars say, and what the new conservatives say.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  31 reviews
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eloquent Writing About A Fascinating Topic March 20 2013
By David Adams - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I had the pleasure of hearing Shereen El Feki interviewed on Fresh Air soon after the release of this book and was so impressed by her conversation with Terry Gross that I downloaded a copy and dived into it that same evening.

If the events of this past decade have instilled in you a thirst to learn more about other people and cultures, you would do well to consider this book a resource.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sex Roles in Egypt April 6 2013
By Gayle Kimball - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
El Feki has a unique perspective with access to frank discussions with her father's relatives and the ability to compare with Western mores based on being raised in Canada with a Welsh mother. She ties attitudes towards gender roles to the ability to create a democratic society after the overthrow of Mubarak. She found that for many in the Arab world, Western values include homosexuality, sex before marriage, mixing of the sexes, women's liberation and pornography. They're believed to undermine Islam and traditional Arab values, observed Shereen El Feki. She spent two years interviewing Arabs about sex for her book Sex and the Citadel. The irony, she adds, is that discussion of sexual pleasure and "so much of what they brand as dangerous foreign ideas were features of the Arab-Islamic world long before they were embraced by Western liberalism." She notes the fear of Western ideas was coupled with a feeling of inferiority that followed Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the British occupation from 1882 to 1952. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s, Hassan al-Banna taught that part of the reason for loss of political power was Egyptian's sexual immorality and that the solution was to follow Shaira law. (Surveys indicate about a third of Arab young men are sexually active before marriage, compared to about 20% of young women).
Most Egyptian young women now cover their hair, while their mothers and grandmothers didn't and could wear short skirts without being harassed. In the 1960s and `70s sex was an accepted aspect of films until the rise of Islamic conservatism and official censorship. A return to Islamic fundamentalism was a form of protest against dictatorship, the most extreme form taught by the Salafi movement. Soon after Mubarak was dethroned, Salafi squads of morality police--similar to those in Saudi Arabia--correcting hand-holding couples, etc.
She found a general lack of sex education by either family or schools, leading to many complaints about sexual satisfaction, supported by larger surveys of Egyptians. Widespread female genital mutilation doesn't help. A Population Council survey of more than 15,0000 young people under age 30 found that 82% of female respondents are circumcised, with a declining rate for younger girls, although most respondents (64%) think it's a necessary custom. It's considered necessary to cool women's sexual desire so she won't want sex before marriage or be too demanding of her husband. Most young people don't discuss puberty and sex with their parents.
El Feki suggests that authoritarian government requires the same kind of patriarchal family life where the father rules and sex before marriage is controlled and prohibited. Although the nation overthrew its father figure, "the nation's young people may find that it's more difficulty to move away from home than it was to get Mubarak out of office." More than three-quarters of both young men and women believe that a woman must obey her husband's orders and two-thirds agreed that wife battery is justified in some situations. When asked about what they were looking for in a spouse, number one was "polite," meaning well brought up, followed by being religious. Education is also valued for both sexes. Expressions of love are not common between spouses, despite being sung about in popular songs and music videos. The main focus on the first year of marriage is producing a child. El Feki reports that media---women's magazines, TV talk shows, newspapers and the Internet--frequently talk about "the trouble with marriage. It's hard to see how democracy can flourish in a society if its constitutional and cultural cornerstone in the family is so undemocratic."
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A powerful voice for the Muslim feminist April 10 2013
By Robert E. Cook - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I write thrillers and have a protagonist in Morocco and a Bedouin woman in Spain; I'd like the Bedouin to be a voice of Muslim feminism. Sex and the Citadel is the third book I've read, and the most recently published, building support for the voice I seek; it's the most approachable, and great fun to read. Sex and the Citadel is also a powerful resource for the young and curious woman in the Middle East.

Shareen El Feki, a half Welsh, half Egyptian woman, does a marvelous job of reaching analytically into the sexual mores of the Arab Muslim world. She spent two years, asking and listening, with Arab women from Egypt and across the Middle East . On this mental journey, through the lens of a thoroughly modern Muslim woman, El Feki leads the reader on a fascinating examination of the attitudes of Muslim women about sexuality, and more.

El Feki can really write. Time spent as a journalist for the Economist seems to have been well spent; the story flows cleanly and maintains the reader's interest. She's smart; an early doctorate in molecular immunology from Cambridge attests to that.

The modern phenomenon of Internet Cloud-connected `everything' allows fascinating discussions of the impact of new knowledge flowing into the Muslim home, beyond the censoring control of the governments. The reader is exposed to several modern web-oriented paths used to educate the budding Muslim feminist. One is Muntada Jensaneya, the Arab Forum for Sexuality, Education and Health. There are others discussed.

Some parts of the book catch one by surprise by evoking a sudden guffaw. El Feki's story of Muslim women searching the internet for information on 'sexual aids' is special, as efforts to translate descriptive material labor. There is little pushing of the Western model of acceptable treatment of women, but rather a considered discussion of why the situation with regard to sexuality is different in the Arab world and how the women there deal with it. Wisdom and humor are delivered through examples, vignettes and pithy quotes from her paternal grandmother.

All in all, the voice of the modern Muslim feminist has been given a new, strong voice. Well done.

Robert Cook, author of Patriot and Assassin[...]
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars accessible look at an interesting topic April 12 2013
By K. Sue - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Shereen Feki, the daughter of an Egyptian man and a Welsh mother, looks at the connection between the expression of sexuality and the pursuit of freedom in general. She argues that Muslims were not always so sexually suppressed as they are today, but that the tyranny of dictatorship has used sexual repression within the patriarchal Middle Eastern societies as the most powerful tool of general suppression in their regimes. With all the changes that Middle Eastern societies have been going through in the Arab Spring uprisings, Feki wanted to see what changes, if any, are taking place in regards to sexuality. She looks at women's sexual rights, the importance of virginity, sex workers, homosexuality and transgender. She concentrates mostly on Egypt, but looks at some issues in Morocco, Lebanon and Tunisia as well.

Feki was born and raised in Canada, but spent summers with her relatives in Egypt. In a way, this book is an attempt to understand her roots and get to know her relatives better. These parts, where she has real discussions with friends and relatives are most interesting and revealing. She also talks to famous feminists, activists, authors and film makers, and while these people often provide the most shocking information, the tone is different than talking to family. I found it a little jarring. On the other hand, I was inspired and genuinely happy to know about these stereotype busting women. My personal reading list has a few more titles added to it.

This book is meant to be read by the general public and thus does not employ academic language. I would call it "kicky". The language is easily accessible and she occasionally uses crude words and makes jokes. However, the content of the book is scholarly. At times I felt there was an attempt being made to make the book more appealing to the reader by quoting extended passages from explicit texts that bordered on sensationalizing. Feki's point is to show how uninhibited Arabs and Muslims used to be, but one or two references would have been enough. If you are looking for a more scholarly take on the same material, albeit describing Egypt in the 70s, read Nawal Sadaawi's "The Faces of Eve". The last chapter of the book contains suggestions of plans of action that Feki, as an employee of the World Health Organization, would like to pursue. It reads like a position paper presented to such an organization. It's not that there's anything wrong with that, but it was such a shift from the tones previously used.

I do think the topic is a worthy one for discussion and I would like to see more books on this subject looking at the situation in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states or the Arabs living in Israel. I would recommend the book for anyone who is interested and hasn't read anything on the subject.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Makes you realize just how naive we are in the US. April 13 2013
By JJ - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Insightful look at sex and politics. Thankful to be a woman living in the Western world. We must learn more to understand other cultures.
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