Daniel Dolan

Sexual healing

Sexual freedom in the Arab world was discussed at the Hay Literary Festival in Beirut this week

Shereen El Feki

Can greater sexual freedom make a society stronger, fairer, or more cohesive?


According to Shereen El Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel and a speaker at this week’s Hay Literary Festival (the Beirut chapter), the answer is emphatically ‘yes’. An Egyptian journalist and academic, El Feki has spent the last five years investigating the Middle East’s sexual mores (or as her book’s subtitle neatly puts it “intimate life in a changing Arab world.”)


Avoiding the bear-traps that litter this highly-charged subject, El Feki bases her argument on meticulous research and compelling personal stories – drawn principally from her home city of Cairo but also from a range of countries across the region. Through warmly recounted interviews with a fascinating range of subjects, El Feki demonstrates how a dearth of sexual dialogue is harming individuals and communities across the Middle East; providing cover for oppression, letting unsafe sexual practices go unchecked, and frustrating efforts toward community cohesion. 


A huge range of Arab opinion is represented in the book, which covers conversations with conservative sheikhs, sex therapists, LGBT rights campaigners, political activists, vendors of exotic aphrodisiacs, and a multitude of others – all of whom El Feki treats with tremendous respect and sensitivity. Her case is perhaps most convincingly corroborated by the scores of ordinary Arabs she spoke with simply searching for stronger and more satisfying relationships – be it with partners who can’t talk to them, families who don’t understand them, or communities that won’t accept them. 


El Feki’s argument that overcoming sexual repression will build stronger societies rests in part on the idea of sexual citizenship – a concept she describes as “the power to make one’s own decisions and demand accountability from those in authority, irrespective of colour, class, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. ”Drawing parallels with democratic self-determination, El Feki explained to NOW that sexual freedom rests on the same principles as thriving, open democracies. “Democratic systems have at their heart a drive toward transparency and responsibility… these are the same things we are trying to work towards in the sexual realm.”


If, as the book’s opening chapter argues, sexual citizenship is both “a reflection of a democratic system…(and) a means of building one,” how do Lebanese sexual and political life mirror one another? 


In some ways, El Feki writes, progressive activists in more conservative Arab countries might use Lebanon as “a model for change.” Having asked a social activist in Lebanon what lessons the country might offer in promoting greater tolerance of sexual diversity, she is given the answer that the right to freedom of association is “why Lebanon was in the vanguard, however flawed it is… you have multiple political parties, you have an active civil society, and you have a very, very liberal law of association…Without those factors, you would not have what you have today in Lebanon in terms of work on sexuality and sexual rights.”


One organization that has made the most of this freedom is Helem, the Lebanese organization that El Feki calls “the granddaddy of all LGBT support groups in the Middle East.” For nearly a decade, Helem has fought for greater sexual tolerance in Lebanon, providing accessible advice and support services and campaigning for more enlightened public dialogue around sex. As well as its general awareness raising activity, the group has run a number of successful policy campaigns on LGBT issues - recently leveraging the support of an influential  medical organization to persuade the Ministry of Justice to end forced anal examinations on suspected homosexuals. 


In conversation with NOW, a Helem spokesperson agreed that the country’s liberal stance on freedom of association has been key to the group’s success. But he warns against the misleading generalization that Lebanon, where homosexual activity is criminalized through a statute prohibiting “unnatural acts,” is some haven of sexual tolerance. 


As an example of this frequent simplification he cites a New York Times article in 2009 that called Beirut “the Provincetown of the Middle East” (in reference to the American town famed for its thriving gay scene.) Wealthy foreigners in Downtown clubs might be able avoid hassle, he argues; the picture is far less rosy for “people who aren’t your typical tourists”: migrant workers, refugees, and less well-off Lebanese citizens caught in popular cruising spots. 


El Feki echoes these points. “I don’t think Lebanon is a sexually liberal society,” she argues, reasoning that “while Beirut’s public face is ‘Babylon on the Med’, its private face is quite different.” For all its sexual swagger, “deeper fractures in Lebanese society belie Beirut’s shiny, seemingly tolerant surface.” Attempts to create a sex education curriculum have stalled; young women with sexual histories face shame and disgrace; and those who do not comply with heterosexual norms are frequently shunned and persecuted. When it comes to sexual freedom, El Feki invokes that charge so frequently levelled against Lebanon that “there is a clear disconnect between appearance and reality.”


Progress, she argues, will require a bridging of that gap. Lebanese society must “find a way to talk more openly about sex…and to talk about it in a constructive way. We’re not talking about a sexual revolution. Any progress will be evolutionary, not revolutionary.” This will not be an easy process. But then, as El Feki so aptly puts it Sex and the Citadel, “in the complex social and political mosaic of Lebanon, change takes time.”


Read this article in Arabic

Shereen El Feki, author of 'Sex and the Citadel' (image via telegraph.co.uk)

When it comes to sexual freedom, El Feki invokes that charge so frequently levelled against Lebanon that “there is a clear disconnect between appearance and reality.”