Interview recently on Fresh Air with the author of a book with a surprising topic, sex in the Arab world. Shereen El Feki’s book is entitled Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. Some of what she discovered in interviews across Arab cultures is not surprising, for example, the condemnation by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood of the recent UN resolution on violence against women. Despite the Arab spring, traditional views of women’s role in society remain largely intact, in the words of El Feki: “The patriarchy is alive and well in Egypt and the wider Arab world. Just because we got rid of the father of the nation in Egypt or Tunisia, Mubarak or Ben Ali, and in a number of other countries, does not mean that the father of the family does not still hold sway.”
Some of what El Feki found in her research was surprising to me:
- Beating a wife is seen by a majority of both men and women as justified if a wife refuses to have sex with her husband or particularly if she is unfaithful.
- Lingerie is seen by many middle class Arab women not as a tool of male oppression but as a tool of empowerment – women are not supposed to have sexual needs and wearing sexy lingerie is an acceptable way for women to initiate sex.
- Female genital mutilation is wide-spread: “According to a 2008 survey of ever-married women in Egypt under the age of 50, about 90 percent of them are circumcised. And more recently that youth survey I mentioned of Egyptian young people, about 80 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds have been circumcised.” And the main drivers are the mothers and grandmothers of the young women.
- There is tremendous pressure on young men looking to marry to be able to afford what has become the expectations for new married couple: “What has happened in Egypt and most of the Arab region is that countries have opened up to the full flood of global capitalism. So there are things to buy, there is 24/7 advertising. It’s a very consumer culture now, and marriage becomes an exercise in conspicuous consumption. And you will often find young men – certainly they’ve told me that frankly, brides and their families, they ask for too much. They want to have the perfect apartment and a car, and the appliances. And then there are all sorts of financial aspects to a marriage. There’s something called mahr which is the money that is enshrined in Islam, that a husband gives his wife on marriage. And then there are things like shabka, which is the jewelry, which is – a bride is expected to be given. So there are all these things and it’s very hard for men to afford this.”