Sex and the Citadel | Shereen El Feki

Summary of: Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World
By: Shereen El Feki


Embark on an exploration of intimate life in the changing Arab world with ‘Sex and the Citadel.’ This book unravels the complex journey of Muslim culture, from sexual freedom centuries ago to the repression that prevails today. Transcending time and misconceptions, Shereen El Feki delves into the historical depths of sexual liberation before detailing the subsequent wave of colonization that catalyzed a drastic cultural shift. The study further examines the repercussions of this shift on contemporary Muslim society, with a focus on the impact on women and the challenges they face in terms of sexual abuse and expectations. Discover the ways in which sexuality is portrayed in Muslim cinema and how the concept of homosexuality has evolved in the Arab world.

Sexual Freedom in the Muslim World

Centuries ago, the Muslim world was celebrated for sexual freedom and was indulged by people like Gustave Flaubert, who traveled to Egypt in 1849 to immerse himself in the diverse offerings of pleasure. Sexual liberation came to an end during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries due to colonization, leading to the repression of sexuality. The defeat led to a cultural movement in Muslim society, which blamed society’s loose sexual morals and homosexuality. This movement led to the growth of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in 1920, advocating for a return to repressive sharia law. Today, countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are known for their sexually restrictive laws, a sharp contrast to the freedom of sexual expression previously celebrated in the Muslim world.

Muslims’ Struggle with Repressive Sexual Culture

Growing up without sex education and in a culture that doesn’t discuss sex, Muslims face challenges in their sexual lives, with women being especially vulnerable. A study showed that 70% of married Egyptian women suffer from sexual issues, with a lack of desire and inability to orgasm being the most common problems. Pain during intercourse also affects a third of the participants while sexual abuse by husbands affects a tenth of married women. However, the TV show “Kalam Kabiir” hosted by sex therapist Heba Kotb, who discusses taboo sexual subjects, has brought hope to improving the sexual lives of Egyptians. Kotb’s counseling practice has also helped many couples overcome their sexual issues, which mostly stem from the lack of communication and knowledge about basic sexual anatomy and pleasure.

Virginity Testing and Deceptive Measures in the Muslim World

In the Muslim world, women are subjected to strict sexual expectations, including the requirement to be virgins on their wedding day. This standard is enforced through hymen inspections and certificates of virginity that unmarried women are pressured to obtain. To meet this expectation, some women in Egypt resort to drastic and deceptive measures, such as undergoing hymen reconstructions or purchasing artificial hymens from the black market. The practice of virginity testing has become a booming business in Egypt, with some gynecologists even being visited by girls desperate to pass the test. In 2009, a new artificial hymen caused controversy in the Egyptian Parliament and was quickly banned from being imported.

Sexual Themes in Egyptian Cinema

Egyptian cinema has a long history of depicting sexual themes in films, despite depictions of sexual acts being prohibited. Movies like Ahasis, which explores sexuality through extramarital affairs, are a throwback to the cinematic traditions of the 1960s and 1970s. However, censorship in Egypt has been increasing in recent years, making it harder to portray sexual themes in films. The restrictions on films are myriad, but the biggest taboo is for a film to contrast sexuality with religion, and the modern Muslim Brotherhood has been promoting a new movement called clean cinema.

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