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A Fig Leaf Is Dropped in Islamic Societies

Sex and Citadel. Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World.
By Shereen El Feki
Pantheon Books, 2013

“Men in Egypt, in the gulf, they always want to have sex in the wrong place,” one Egyptian woman whispered to the writer Shereen El Feki, while she conducted her research into sexual proclivities in a rapidly changing Arab world.

The comment was about anatomy, not geography. And it’s indicative of the frankness Ms. El Feki’s “Sex and the Citadel” sometimes achieves. Though she warns her readers that she is not writing an encyclopedia or staging a peep show, Ms. El Feki does ask an array of highly personal questions about present-day sexual relations in Muslim societies, with particular emphasis on Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. A number of people tell her that anal sex gains appeal when a culture places a high premium on virgin brides.

Ms. El Feki, who is of both Welsh and Egyptian descent, became drawn to her book’s subject matter while serving as vice chairwoman of the United Nations’ Global Commission on H.I.V. and the Law. She was knowledgeable and curious about sexuality, but how hard would she rock the casbah? “Sex and the Citadel” is as much a work of ill-supported optimism as it is an exposé, with a political context that does not extend far beyond the Arab Spring of 2011. So Egypt’s current turmoil and potentially repressive climate go unmentioned. And in a book that frequently invokes the Mubarak administration, she does not mention either President Mohamed Morsi or any improvements his rule might bring.

Of course it’s all relative: Ms. El Feki begins this book taking a long view. She contrasts the avidly sensual Egypt of past centuries with the Arab world’s view of a prim and joyless West. Gustave Flaubert, when not writing “Madame Bovary,” found time for a 19th-century version of sexual tourism in Egypt and described it enthusiastically. (About one of his consorts: “She is very corrupt, writhing, full of pleasure, a little tigress. I stain the divan.”) He voiced disappointment that no worthwhile opportunities for sodomy allowed him to broaden his research.

Flaubert had been drawn by a rich tradition of Middle Eastern erotica that has all but vanished under present-day Islamic strictures. The arrival of Napoleon’s European influence and, later, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s helped this change. Ms. El Feki cites the remarkable fact that some of today’s Egyptian women barely know the Arabic words for female genitalia, since the subject is considered too shameful to discuss. Yet Egypt also treats female circumcision as a commonplace, and Ms. El Feki quotes a mother who says casually, “I’m having my daughters done next week.” Though “Sex and the Citadel” works well enough as a general survey, it lacks the thoughtfulness to reconcile all the contradictory sexual attitudes it describes.

Ms. El Feki finds a daya, “an untraditional traditional midwife,” who performs these circumcisions and also justifies them. The gist of the daya’s argument: Circumcised women are less apt to make nuisances of themselves than intact ones. “What is the case if her husband died or divorced her, is she going to pull men from the cafes?” the daya asks. The world of “Sex and the Citadel” is full of such unanswerable questions.

The rules governing marriage in Islamic countries seem to give great advantages to men. A man can strike up a temporary marriage with a woman with whom he wants to have sex, then say, “I divorce you!” three times and have it be all over. There are several other gradations of marriage that rank beneath the most estimable version: state-recognized, religiously sanctified, family-approved unions. Yet the Egypt that this book describes is anything but a stud’s paradise. When economic hardship is coupled with increasing importance of women in the workplace, male anxieties rise. “Being a man is a privilege, but it’s also a terrific pressure,” one man tells Ms. El Feki. She concludes, “Whatever the reason, the upshot is men with their tackle in a twist.”

“Sex and the Citadel” is not above cheap tricks. The author begins her introduction by showing a vibrator to six baffled Cairo housewives. And the title comes from Ms. El Feki’s claim that a taxi driver told her to strip, even though she merely asked to be taken to the Saladin Citadel in Cairo; she says that the Citadel’s Arabic name sounds like the Egyptian word for undressing.

But her survey covers major sex-related subjects, like being unmarried in an Arab country (“It’s almost inconceivable to bring home a date unless it’s of the edible variety”), trying to persuade a condom-averse population to practice protected sex, the ubiquitousness of prostitution and the treatment of homosexuals. Every single aspect of the book is influenced by the new pervasiveness of Western pornography and the impossibility of shrouding sex in secrecy anymore.

Most of her book is general. But Ms. El Feki does come across some memorable specifics, like the restored-virginity racket. Chinese efforts to market fake hymens filled with red dye touched off a 2009 debate in Egypt’s Parliament and became one more blot on the Mubarak government’s record. And an ethical dilemma faces doctors asked to do surgical hymen repair. “Are they complicit in a procedure that buttresses the patriarchy and the double standards around virginity?” Ms. El Feki asks.

As one Cairo doctor puts it: “When I have 10 women who appear for a consultation, I sympathize with at least 9 of them. They’re suffering, and I am of a mind to help these girls.”

Janet Maslin