Mar 12, 2014
Update: ‘Sex and the Citadel’ Makes Guardian Book Award Longlist
Posted on Aug 1, 2013
By Tracy Quan
Meanwhile, the sex life of a desperate Cairo housewife (“We are like brother and sister”) resembles that of any unhappy secular couple in any American metropolis.
During a springtime visit to New York, El Feki addressed a packed room at the Museum of Sex. I was struck by her appearance—a soft pixie cut complementing a sleek featherweight Diane von Furstenberg jacket. The perfect look for a sex futurist. One of El Feki’s predictions, regarding female circumcision in Egypt, made me wince. A class division is developing around the clitoris, as wealthier families, urban parents and moms who graduate from high school are more likely to opt out of circumcising their daughters. If things go well for Egypt, we can expect that less than half the country’s 18-year-old girls will be circumcised by 2025. This trend, El Feki warns us, is “by no means assured, given the ascent of Egypt’s Islamists.” Unfortunately, the Muslim Brotherhood has recently been martyrized by the military, ensuring the growth of Islamist influence in young people’s lives.
She struck another nerve when she told us that LGBTQ activists in Arab countries “are not looking for the freedom to come out.”
What could be more important than coming out? “They want the freedom to stay in and live their lives behind closed doors and do as they choose,” El Feki said. “They are looking for privacy.”
Our fabulous pre-Enlightenment tradition of confession (sustained by Twitter, prolonged by Facebook) is at odds with Islam, the Quran and regional etiquette. To some, that’s further proof that Arab countries just need to be … liberated. To others, skeptical about American over-sharing, it’s a reminder that a Near Eastern sensibility has something to offer the West. Perhaps the future of sexual rights lies in freedom becoming more elegant and less exuberant.
Gay identity is less meaningful when your government doesn’t recognize individual identity. A queer activist, interviewed by El Feki, says: “I don’t have a record in the Lebanese government that’s Nadine as an individual. I’m in the record with my father.” Though it’s rare to hear Americans yearning for a more direct relationship with government, that’s exactly what Nadine wants—without her father as middleman.
In “Sex and the Citadel” and in conversation, El Feki says “patriarchy” a lot. This is not the vague “patriarchy” into which muddled feminists bundle an ill-articulated assortment of anti-male resentments. I am reminded of Mohamed Choukri, a controversial Moroccan novelist and former prostitute whose writing was censored for two decades. In 1999, he explained to an interviewer, “What annoys the conservatives is to see that I criticize my father. The father is sacred in Arab-Muslim society.”
El Feki explained that “For unmarried mothers, there’s a separate problem in the Arab world: Getting your kid registered with the state. There’s something very important called nasab, which is the child’s connection to the paternal line. If you can’t demonstrate that, in many countries, your kid does not get a birth certificate. Your kid does not have a right to go to school, the right to a passport, or to immunization.”
In March during the U.N.‘s 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, the Muslim Brotherhood condemned all efforts to grant “equal rights” to “illegitimate sons resulting from adulterous relationships.” If the Brotherhood sounds threatened here, it’s partly because of Morocco, where unmarried mothers are now able to register their infants at birth. Aicha Ech-Chenna, granddaughter of a religious scholar, who played a major role in these reforms, is quoted in El Feki’s book, recalling her grandfather’s words: “Never say ‘child of sin.’ ”
Before the Arab Spring, El Feki visited an Egyptian home for unwed moms. “The woman who runs that home was furious,” she said, “because they had all these kids and had no way to register them with the state. She told me, ‘We have a whole generation of kids the state does not recognize. When you disenfranchise a generation, how do you expect these kids to be loyal to Egypt?’ ”
“Sex and the Citadel,” in English, is available in a growing number of Arab countries, starting with Lebanon. The Indonesian edition—in the world’s largest Muslim country—is out next month.
Egypt, are you ready for an Arabic edition?
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