This alumna’s path has taken her from the halls of St. Hilda’s to the bedrooms of the Middle East
By Cynthia Macdonald
Where Westerners have sex, Arabs have sexism. That’s the stereotypical assertion that U.K.-based author Shereen El Feki ’91 both confirms and dispels in Sex and the Citadel, her fascinating examination of carnal life in the Arab region.
Raised in Waterloo, Ont., El Feki has forged a unique path to becoming a sex researcher: She first graduated from Trinity’s Immunology program, then completed a doctorate in that field at the University of Cambridge in England.
Her resulting expertise in science led to positions as healthcare correspondent for The Economist, and Vice-Chair of the United Nations’ Global Commission on HIV and the Law. Her mentor at Trinity, former Provost Robert Painter, sees her transition from scientist to journalist as completely natural: “Above all, university education is a way of opening up capabilities. Shereen has made brilliant use of her own.”
The daughter of an Egyptian father and a Welsh mother, El Feki has also worked as a television presenter for Al Jazeera. She is a TED Fellow and has delivered TED Talks on HIV and the law, and Arab sexuality. Sex and the Citadel is largely centred in Egypt, and is the product of three years of travelling around the world and talking about the issues. It courageously probes all facets of sexual life—including marriage, sex work, pornography, sexual violence, LGBT issues and reproductive concerns. El Feki recently spoke with Cynthia Macdonald in Toronto.
CM: Talking to strangers about their sex lives is never easy. But it must have been particularly tough in countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco, where strong taboos surround that kind of public discussion.
SEF: Because of my interest and background in immunology and HIV, I first approached the subject from a public health perspective. Putting on the white coat, as it were, gives you a sense of respectability and gets you in the door. You’d think it would be difficult to get people to talk about sex; in fact, my difficulty was getting them to stop! I also have a connection to the region, so people felt comfortable that I would understand their cultural context.
CM: You say “if you want to know a people, go inside their bedrooms.” What did you find out in those rooms?
SEF: It dawned on me that what was happening inside the bedroom was being very powerfully influenced by what was happening outside, in terms of politics, economics and religion. The only acceptable context for sexual life in the Arab region is marriage. But with double-digit unemployment—which was a main driver of the Arab Spring in 2011—couples have to wait an increasingly long time to get married in many parts of the Arab region. The connection to politics and religion is very clear: In Egypt, for example, you now have a government that is trying to prove its Islamic ‘street cred’ by being holier than thou. And the easiest way to do that is to lash out at populations who are transgressing the sexual norms, such as LGBT people.
CM: Surprisingly, the majority of women in Egypt still undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), though you say the practice is on the decline.
SEF: FGM is a decision made by women—by mothers and grandmothers deciding whether daughters are circumcised—and a process from which men have been historically removed. The paradoxical situation I describe is that men who didn’t used to think about it now have very clear views on it, through the impact of pornography. They see Western women behaving in lewd ways, and they know they are not circumcised. So their belief is that if you “clip the girl’s wings,” she won’t make sexual demands or be tempted to have sex outside of marriage.
Pornography does create stereotypes; they have preconceived ideas about the West, just as the West has preconceived ideas about them. One belief is that in Western countries, anything goes. A question that always arises is, “Is it true that Western women like to have sex with more than one man at a time?”
CM: Were any of your preconceptions about the Arab region upended?
SEF: I was surprised at the number of people who were trying to change things: The number of NGOs, the number of people working to change their own lives. At the end of the day, what people are looking for are safe, satisfying and pleasurable sexual lives free of violence, discrimination and coercion. That is the definition of sexual rights, and it is not some Western invention. That aspiration is universal.
CM: Men have a large part to play here, of course. You interviewed many women for this book, but I understand your next project will be looking specifically at Arab men.
SEF: I met many men who were unhappy with their sex lives and didn’t know how to improve them. There is a real barrier between male and female communication, which extends from the bedroom to broader family life. Gary Barker [co-ordinator of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey] and I have now raised over a million dollars to study Arab men in four countries: Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. We’ll be looking not only at how they see women’s rights, but how they see their own lives as husbands, brothers and sons. Arab men are thought of as misogynistic—but people forget that they are under enormous pressure, particularly economic pressure. And yet, we rarely talk to them about how they are coping with it.
CM: Fifty years ago, we had a sexual revolution in the West. Do you think that could happen in the Arab world?
SEF: If by revolution you mean a dramatic break with past order, we’re certainly not seeing that in politics. Many countries are more or less back to where they started, or possibly several steps back. But development is a journey, not a race. Quite simply put, one does not bring about change in the Arab region through confrontation, as has been demonstrated by recent events.
It happens through a process of gradual negotiation. The groups that are most successful at challenging the sexual status quo are those working very slowly and along the grain of religion and culture.
CM: And for the most part, the people you interviewed do respect the religious character of their societies.
SEF: In the book, I talk about a gay man in Cairo whom I call Munir. He had terrible experiences at the hands of the state—being tortured in police custody, arrested and condemned, all in the absence of a law that explicitly criminalizes sodomy. But when I asked him if he wanted gay rights, he said absolutely not. Kiss a man in the street? No! This is a Muslim country, we don’t do that here. I am just looking for human rights: respect for me as a person, not because I am gay.
I also went to a sex education class in Qatar, where the women told me they didn’t want to have sex outside of marriage. It’s against our religion, they said. What we want is to be able to control our own bodies.
CM: That said, you also talk about how, in the distant past, the Arab region was much more open about sex than it is now.
SEF: A thousand years ago, Arabs and Muslims were the world’s leaders in thinking and writing about sexuality. It is not an alien concept. Many people are saying: if it was possible for our ancestors, it should be possible for us. I’m not suggesting we go back to some mythical sexual paradise of ages past. What I’m saying is, how can we recapture that spirit within Islam? How are we going to reconcile the needs of the faith with the needs of the flesh? A thousand years ago they were able to do it. We need to find out how to as well.
CM: You yourself are a practising Muslim. You grew up with what you called an “icing” of Islam, but became more interested in your heritage after September 11.
SEF: I remember the grand debates that would go on around The Economist at that time. The dominant voice was very much a Western framework of thinking, a radical reshaping of Iraq following the 2003 occupation, which was proved wrong. And I would have conversations about what was going on with my father, who is very knowledgeable about the history and culture of the Arab world. He’d say, it’s not going to play out like they say it is—citing Napoleon’s difficult experience with the Mamelukes in 1798 as a reference point. It struck me that I didn’t have to sit there and listen to Westerners tell me about the Arab region. That was really an eye-opener for me, and I decided then to literally “re-Orient” my career. An opportunity arose in the shape of Al Jazeera, which gave me a chance to work more closely in that part of the world.
CM: There are a number of liberal Muslim commentators in the media—among them, Canada’s Irshad Manji, and Reza Aslan in the U.S.— now showing us how truly diverse and complex interpretations of Islam can be. Do you see yourself in that tradition?
SEF: I’m going to answer that in a kind of roundabout way. At first, I wanted outsiders to understand what is really going on in the region, because in most of the coverage you would hear was the voice of old men in power. But by the time I’d finished writing, it actually became a book for people who live in those countries. Because I realized they didn’t know about possibilities to tackle their sexual dilemmas. And I wanted them to have the information and the incentive to start asking questions for themselves. Certainly, Islam is not as black and white as conservatives would have us believe. There are at least 50 shades of grey on most issues, and I hope this book will encourage people to explore that spectrum.
CM: You lived at St. Hilda’s while at Trinity. Any fond memories of college life you’d care to share?
SEF: Can I just say that when my friends from Trinity found out I was writing a book, they said ‘Oh! A science book.’ I said no, it’s actually a book about sex. They said ‘…sex? You?’ Because I was very much ‘geek chic’ at the time. My ultimate fashion accessory was a lab coat (laughs). So yes, how times have changed. My enduring memories of Toronto were actually spent under the bright lights down at the medical school at two o’clock in the morning, trying to deal with a gel that was leaking all over the place. I did try the debating society, but was completely crushed at my first debate. Which was interesting, because of course now I do so much public speaking.
CM: You went from being a scientist to being a journalist. How do the two forms of research compare?
SEF: I think they’re complementary. They can’t exist in isolation anymore. If you look at many grants for scientists now, one of the conditions of your being able to do large-scale quantitative research is your ability to make your findings accessible to the public. Part of that is finding an entry point, and a lot of those entry points are anecdotal and qualitative. Quite frankly, I think what changes people’s lives are the stories.
CM: Is England really home for you now?
SEF: Since going to Cambridge, I’ve been based in London. My husband is Canadian, from Toronto. We’re now looking to move back. I think if you really want to appreciate Canada, you need to live somewhere else first. I did an interview in Germany, and was told I could not have written this book if I’d been German. I have a very strong opinion about where I’d like to see societies move in terms of intimate rights. Yet the book doesn’t preach; it says here are the facts, and allows readers to come to their own conclusions. When I told the Germans I’d grown up in Canada, they said that made sense to them. Until I left home, I really had not appreciated the tolerance and diversity that I found growing up in Waterloo, but especially here at Trinity. The value of that didn’t really hit me until I met people from other cultures, who didn’t really enjoy those rights.