Shereen El Feki – a writer, broadcaster and PhD in molecular immunology – spent five years investigating the radical upheaval of Arab society: not in the political sphere, but in the bedrooms of the region. Sex, she believes, is deeply enmeshed with religion, politics and the economy. And learning about married life, dating, homosexual circles and sex education, to name only a few of the taboo topics she explored, can give us rich insight into everyday lives and dreams. Here, in an adapted excerpt from her book Sex and The Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World (out March 16), Ms. El Feki introduces us to a famous Arab sex therapist.
Lackluster lovemaking is positively un-Islamic.
"Let none of you come upon his wife like an animal, and let there be an emissary between them," the Prophet Mohammed is reported to have said. "What is this emissary, O Messenger of God?" a clueless believer asked. "The kiss and [sweet] words," he replied.
If those sentiments seem to be lost in contemporary Arab society, one woman is out to breathe that pioneering spirit back into marital relations: Heba Kotb, the Arab world's best-known sex therapist.
"We don't have a lot of time in this world. And we practise sex, so let's practise it in a good way," she enthused. "Let's transform it into the dynamo of our life and our happiness."
Kotb and I first met at her clinic in a trendy part of Cairo a couple of years before the recent uprisings. "For now, I'm booked three months in advance. Daily, I see between 10 and 20 [patients]. In the summer [when Egyptians living abroad, and Arabs from elsewhere in the region, visit Cairo], it's usually a mess."
Her Egyptian patients come from all classes, locations, and age groups; although women are traditionally expected to head into sexual hibernation at menopause (in Arabic, the "age of despair"), Kotb's clientele also includes a sprinkling of those well past retirement.
Patients have not always been forthcoming. When Kotb first set up shop in 2001, the few people bold enough to seek help were wary about putting in an appearance. "The man would ask whether he would be seen in my office or not [and], if there's another patient on the day, whether there would be a space so that they would not overlap," she recalled.
Now, she says, "They are waiting outside. Things change."
This change is in part due to Kotb herself. In 2006, she burst into Arab households with Kalam Kabir (Big Talk), a weekly TV series on sexual problems broadcast by one of Egypt's private satellite channels. The show's dozen or so episodes openly ventured into areas where other presenters had feared to tread – online porn, oral sex, and wedding night jitters, among them. For just under an hour, a soberly suited Kotb, her hair and neck fully covered by a hijab, dispensed advice on various topics, her lengthy monologues relieved by the occasional guest expert and an imam giving an Islamic take on the issue at hand, be it masturbation or voyeurism.
For all the hardships Egyptians now face, there is a new freedom of expression, one Kotb sees in her patients: Earlier it was mainly husbands dragging in their wives for consultation; after the 2011 uprising, she found the situation reversed. "Women are more courageous now to accuse their husbands of not being good [in bed]. It is the spirit of the revolution – I have to reject, I have to refuse, I have to say no [I am not the one to blame]," she told me.
Kotb's advice to couples is shaped by her faith.
"I love Islam," she told me. "I admire the religion. In radical Christianity, sex is not a good thing, even within marriage. But this is not logic; people find themselves desiring something, and they couldn't get attached to that religion, so they start to get out of that religion. In Islam, it's the contrary: sex is something that is advised. … This makes people more religious and more loving to this religion, which is giving them all this space, which is giving them all this pleasure – and also the reward in this life and the hereafter."
Kotb is in her 40s; like many Egyptians of her generation, she became interested in Islam at university. "I was brought up in a very liberal house; I was wearing a swimsuit until after I got married." Her husband, whom she met at medical school, came from an even less observant background, but together, she said, "we decided to make ourselves and our future families better than our older families, so we started to read about religion, to study Koran, to get it by heart." It was around this time that Kotb decided to put on hijab, much to her parents' dismay – at the time, head scarves were something for servants, not aspiring surgeons.
Her career in sexology came later. As a working mother, Kotb decided to forgo a career in surgery for something less time intensive: forensic medicine. She began working on the sexual abuse of children – both victims and perpetrators – and it was through this that she developed her interest in sexuality. A doctorate from the United States on sexuality in Islam topped off her training, and in Cairo she began to build her patient roster, which now extends to several Gulf states, and a following among Muslims in Canada as well.
Kotb is obviously an inspiration to some; I've seen strangers come up to her in public to thank her for her show. How many of these fans are actually following her advice is another matter. "I like Heba Kotb," one married woman in her early 20s in a working-class neighbourhood of Cairo told me, "because she explains everything in a modest and useful way. I watch it always, but my mother does not like her. I heard from her [Kotb] that I need to ask for my sexual rights. But I cannot apply that because my husband will not agree or will feel that I am rude."
To be sure, Kotb's advice seems daring to many by today's standards.
Given recent fatwas forbidding oral sex or nudity between the conjugal sheets, her suggestions on how to spice up spousal relations have earned her conservative opponents. But on closer inspection, Kotb is hardly a radical – something that puts her in the crosshairs of other, more liberal sexologists across the region.
She is, for example, an implacable opponent of premarital sex, on psychosexual as well as religious grounds. And for all her talk of women exerting their God-given sexual rights, it's still men first in Kotb's book. "He is exposed to many temptations outside the home. Be available to please him and do not give him a reason to make a choice between you and hellfire."
The advice of Kotb and other Islamically inflected sex therapists pales in comparison with the full-blooded approach of the past.
Take, for example, the Encyclopedia of Pleasure. We know little about its author, Ali ibn Nasr al-Katib, other than where and when he wrote: Baghdad in the late 10th or early 11th century. But short of cybersex and porn videos, its 43 chapters cover every conceivable sexual practice. "On the Advantages of a Non-virgin over a Virgin," "On Increasing the Sexual Pleasure of Man and Woman," and "Description of the Nasty Way of Doing It and Lewd Sex" give you some idea of its vast scope.
The Encyclopedia is also full of women with full-throttle sex drives. The sexual insatiability of women was a well-established theme long before Ali ibn Nasr came on the scene. The Koran tells the story of the wife of a Pharaonic court official, better known as Zuleika, who attempted to seduce the Prophet Joseph, then a young and handsome slave. When he refused her advances, she claimed that he was the seducer, but her lie was exposed when people noticed that his shirt was torn from the back, proving that he had been fleeing her, not the other way around.
It is tempting to contrast today's close-mindedness and sexual hang-ups, to the freewheeling, fun-loving women of the Encyclopedia.
It is, however, important to remember that this is not some medieval Masters and Johnson; Ali ibn Nasr is telling tales, not taking a compass to female sexual response. His stories may be exaggerated, or even fabricated, but that's not the point. What's remarkable about his work, seen through 21-first-century eyes, is not whether women actually behaved in this way in the eleventh century, but the fact that it was considered desirable that they should express their sexuality – at least in private– and that it was socially acceptable to write about it in such a free, frank, and detailed fashion.
Adapted from Sex and the Citadel. Copyright © 2013 Shereen El Feki. Published by Doubleday Canada, an imprint of the Doubleday Canada Publishing Group, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.