The Arab world today is widely criticised for its sexual intolerance. Women hide their charms under dark billows of fabric; girls have their genitals mutilated by elders determined to keep their desires in check; gay men are arrested and then raped by their jailers.
Once upon a time things were different. The Prophet Muhammad urged his followers to satisfy their partners in the bedroom. Prudish medieval Christians despised his detailed advice on the ins and outs of sex as “a cunning ploy to win converts”, which undermine their own faith’s fixation on virginity, chastity and monogamy. When Gustave Flaubert travelled to Egypt in the 19th century, he spent hazy days watching bawdy skits on the streets of Cairo about “whores and buggering donkeys”, and fleshy nights enjoying the local prostitutes.
Today East and West have shifted positions.The book review reminded me that I had recently heard Ms. El Feki interviewed on NPR and was fascinated by her insights:
What she learned, she says, is that "the patriarchy is alive and well in Egypt and the wider Arab world," and that women, too, "are some of the staunchest upholders of patriarchal attitudes."
Women, for example, decide whether or not to circumcise their daughters and granddaughters. Men are not traditionally part of the decision-making process when it comes to female genital mutilation (FGM).
"[Women] are making the decisions about their daughters' well-being and FGM, to cut or not to cut," El Feki says. "They are making these decisions based on faulty information, but the fact is, they have agency; and the key to moving forward is to recognize that power and to shift it to a decision which is recognizing and respecting their child's physical and mental rights."
Admittedly, there are no clear lessons in her comments about the impact of intimacy on reproduction, but the winds of change seem to be blowing a bit in the direction of more control by women over their private lives. Historically, that has been accompanied by a decline in fertility and in most Arab countries that is the direction that the birth rate has been going.