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Sex and the Citadel

sex citadelJust got back from this talk, by Shereen El Feki, at CIGI. I’m not going to summarize, because the link takes you to the CIGI website, where you can watch the entire talk in all its glory.

Instead, I will make a few observations.

1) when I arrived and saw that the talk was a tie-in to a book tour/promo, I thought “that’s nice” but had no intention of buying the book. By the end of the talk, I was one of the first people in line to purchase a copy (which actually sold out at the event). I’m really looking forward to reading it, and hope I find the time to do so, soon;

2) I love it when a speaker is articulate and organized. When he or she honours the audience–each member of which has chosen to take the time in coming to listen, after all–by giving a thoughtful, well-prepared, eloquent and well-structured talk. El Feki did a marvellous job on all counts;

3) The talk was largely expository rather than persuasive, and was clearly primarily about spreading information rather than arguing a position–though of course there were some built in paradigms through which this information was, inevitably, filtered. This is to be expected–once information is processed to any degree, the notion that it might still be neutral resides somewhere between a conceit and a myth. One of the things I really liked about this talk is that the paradigm through which she presented her facts was thoughtful and nuanced. I always appreciate that, amid far too much positional extremism in framing debates around faith, feminism, repression and other such hot-button issues.

I had been particularly looking forward to this talk because of our visit to Morocco last summer. As we walked through the labyrinthine streets of Tangier and Marrakech, waited at the train station and spoke in French with some of the families who were also there and so on, I was deeply struck by the ways in which we were poised on what was literally the Western edge of the complex blend of culture, religion and language that is the Arab world. Technology was pervasive, but used in ways that were both similar and different to how we used it. Ways that were culturally specific and culturally derived.

Morocco is admittedly a country in which women have more rights and freedoms than they do in other Arab countries. Having spoken with some of the robed women and their children, I came away with the impression, not of so-called “backwardness”  and repression, but rather of a different set of choices, and a different way of being modern.

I was absolutely fascinated and wanted to learn more. The enticement of this talk left me hopeful of further insights, and it did not disappoint. Shereen El Feki is an eloquent and articulate speaker whose prepared talk was informative and blended basic information with the deeper, more research-specific insights she had gleaned from her years of interviews, research and work on the subject of sexual mores in the Arab world. The central metaphor, of course, was that of the citadel–the notion of the impregnable fortress, which in this case refers to the cultural, social and legal barriers around sexuality and women’s bodies. Marriage is the only acceptable way into this metaphorical citadel, and indeed in many Arab countries extramarital sex is illegal.

Her responses to questions also intrigued me–the ways in which she intelligently reframed questions and addressed them in ways that demonstrated a sense of both specificity and an ability to interpolate the larger cultural trends and patterns.

But in some ways, the point at which I shifted from “this is all very interesting” to “I must buy this book” hinged on the story she told of how the Canadian cover came about. I’m always a pushover for a good story.

In response to a comment about the cover by the moderator, El Feki explained that both the British and the US covers for the book were deemed too suggestive for the Canadian cover. So, they ended up turning to an Arabian text that is now hundreds of years old–one which eloquently discusses sexuality and uses sexual language. With the rise of religious conservatism in the Arab world, many of these words have disappeared from the language, and the only words that are now used to describe sexuality are street slang. And so El Feki chose some of these lost words and spoke to a talented calligrapher friend, who took those words and used them to create the female form. Wonderful–a reclamation of lost words, of lost signifiers, and with it, the hope that what was signified by them might also be claimed or reclaimed, in a world faced with the rising challenges and tensions of an unsustainable status quo around gender and sexuality.


2 comments on “Sex and the Citadel

  1. Shereen El Feki
    March 26, 2013

    Hello Susan! Shereen here. I think we met briefly last night, at the book signing. Thanks for your kind words–I’m delighted you enjoyed the event–look forward to your feedback on “Sex and the Citadel”.

  2. Susan
    March 29, 2013

    Thanks so much for stopping by to comment–yes, I did come by the table where you were signing so I could get my newly-acquired copy signed! Thanks again for a great talk–I’m really looking forward to having some time to read the book. I also enjoyed the coverage/review of it in the Economist *two days* after seeing your talk. I felt so leading edge.

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This entry was posted on March 26, 2013 by in Governance, Human Rights, Politics, Rights and tagged , , .
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