Author Shereen El Feki signs a book for an audience member, following her CIGI Signature Lecture (Lisa Malleck/CIGI).
Author Shereen El Feki signs a book for an audience member, following her CIGI Signature Lecture (Lisa Malleck/CIGI).

It’s not every day that a CIGI Signature Lecture opens with an anecdote of a Western-educated woman having to explain the purpose of a vibrator to a group of Cairo housewives, complete with the buzzing prop in-hand, over mint tea and baklava.

But then Shereen El Feki’s book Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World (Random House, 2013) is anything but an everyday read.

The award-winning journalist and Vice-Chair of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and Law prefaced the above passage from the book by describing “the citadel” as  “that impregnable fortress that is placed around sex and marriage” in the Arab region.

El Feki noted that sex was the lens through which she investigated the recent past in the 22-nation region.

“At the end of the day, if you really want to know a people, start by looking in their bedrooms,” she said.

El Feki presented data from the book illustrating how the sexual and the political are intertwined in the region, such as rampant youth unemployment leading many young people to delay marriage and remain in their parents’ homes, often in a state of “suspended adoescence.”

She also noted how a rise in Islamic conservatism has led to a reluctance in young people, especially women, in admitting to having sex before marriage or to seek counselling on reproductive health. She cited what she calls the “40/80 gap,” whereby 40 percent of young men of young men admit to having sex before marraige, while upwards of 80 percent of young women say they are not having sex before marriage.

“Which begs the question, who are all these young men having sex with?” El Feki asked rhetorically.

In Egypt, she said a single lesson in biology class is the extent of sexuality education in the official curriculum. El Feki said this has resulted in only three percent of the population being sufficiently knowledgeable on the methods of HIV transmission, and pointed to the World Health Organization’s prediction of a sharp increase in deaths due to AIDS in the Arab region.

Following her presentation, El Feki was joined in conversation by CIGI Senior Fellow Bessma Momani, who also moderated questions from the house and online audiences. Momani said she was struck by many of the stories in the book, especially the one of an educated, unmarried young woman in Morocco, who believed she had become pregnant through an “immaculate conception.”

El Feki said she was encouraged by the work that an increasing network of NGOs were doing to shield unwed mothers from the certain social stigma they faced, but cautioned that a great deal more needs to be done.

Having spent five years researching and conducting interviews for the book and its continuing online forum, El Feki said it is ultimately a case of mapping out “the citadel” and scaling its walls rather than storming its well-fortified doors.  

“The key to change is not through a revolution, but through sexual re-evaluation,” El Feki said. “No one is talking about pulling the citadel down. So perhaps we can pull it down from within.”

HAVE YOUR SAY: If you attended last night’s lecture, caught the webcast or watched the archived video, we would love to hear your thoughts on Dr. El Feki’s book and presentation. Start a dialogue by adding your comments below. To contribute to the Sex and the Citadel online forum, visit www.sexandthecitadel.com.

“At the end of the day, if you really want to know a people, start by looking in their bedrooms.” Shereen El Feki
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