LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Understanding people’s attitudes can help us understand the Arab Spring and realise it is not a single event but a process that will take a decade or more to produce durable results, according to an expert on gender issues in the Middle East.
Shereen El Feki, a journalist, author and gender expert who focuses on the Arab world, spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation last week after chairing a panel on women’s rights and the Arab Spring at the Trust Women conference in London.
Q: You chaired a panel at the conference on “Women’s Rights in the Arab World: Has Spring Turned to Winter?” – has it?
It’s too early to tell. I find it slightly baffling that people expected there was going to be this extraordinary transition in the Arab Spring. The whole reason that people rose up in these countries in the first place is that they were in such a mess. That mess is not going to resolve itself over a year, three years or five years. It’s going to resolve over a decade or a generation. What timeframe are your seasons? We’re still in the Arab Spring. That’s a process which is now going to play out. This is not a place that changes by revolution. It changes by evolution in politics and economics, and in sex as well.
Q. What are some of the things you learned about Egypt and the Arab Spring through studying the bedroom?
I began to appreciate that change is achieved, not through confrontation, but through negotiation. I never talk about sexual revolution, let alone political revolution, in my book (Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World), because that’s not really how change happens in the Arab region. We’ve had two rounds of uprisings in Egypt and we’re back to a quasi-military government. So do not expect dramatic breaks.
We tend to think of sexual rights – your right to a safe and satisfying sexual life free of violence and discrimination – as individual rights. But a number of people I interviewed questioned whether you can talk about these as individual rights when we don’t actually have the structures that realize or respect them. For example, if I get into trouble in Egypt, I can’t rely upon the police or even the judiciary to uphold my rights. Basically, I’m going to have to call my uncle and hope that he can come and get me out of trouble.
That dependence on your family has enormous implications. The huge unemployment rates of young people in Egypt and throughout the region means they are financially dependent on their families into their thirties. It’s delaying the age of marriage. If you can’t get married, you can’t move out of your parents’ home. So the family sets the boundaries on how much can be achieved in terms of individual liberties both inside and outside the bedroom.
I also began to clearly understand the huge gap between appearance and reality in all aspects of life across the Arab world. What causes social ructions is not what people are doing, but what they’re seen to be doing. That has all sorts of implications, particularly for women. For example, we have this phenomenon of “summer marriage” in which men from the Gulf come and buy girls from certain villages around Egypt. They get an Islamically sanctioned marriage certificate and then, after a few weeks, they divorce and leave. Many girls get “married” a couple of times per year. It’s sex tourism. These girls are basically being trafficked by their families, except we call it marriage because it has the appearance of marriage.
Q. How can some of these taboos be tackled?
Certainly, educating girls about their rights is absolutely vital. The idea about being free from sexual violence has traction now. There are efforts to educate boys that it doesn’t make you more of a man to beat up or harass women. The problem is bringing projects like that to scale, which is difficult. We have a million exciting projects across the region, but everything is small.
Q. Have you seen signs of change based on your research on the bedroom?
Certainly people are willing to speak out now about issues that they wouldn’t have a few years ago. For example, sexual violence, which was a subject women were essentially ashamed to talk about, is now increasingly on the table. We’re now able to do research on sexual violence, which is in itself a step forward.
I would say that there are all sorts of exciting movements tackling taboos such as unwed motherhood, sex education in schools and homosexuality. I’ve become quite frustrated when I see the presentation of the Arab World as hopeless and helpless. Yes, it is extremely messy, but there are not too many places which have made such a huge transition from colonial occupation to dictatorship to democracy in a single tiny step.
There is a connection between achieving democratic aims, like justice, equality and dignity, in the bedroom and what happens outside. If you achieve a levelling of the playing field in your intimate relations, it has a really powerful effect on what happens in the bigger context of politics. And that’s as true in much of the Arab region, I would argue, as it was in the history of the West.
Q: Do different social classes in Egypt think about sex differently? Does this have a bearing on politics?
Although we have seen income disparity increase, attitudes are starting to converge particularly because of the media. Attitudes on social issues are actually not that different between different socioeconomic classes although there is variation. For example, the acceptability of FGM is higher among poor, less-educated women but a significant proportion of wealthier and better-educated women accept it too. Education and wealth don’t necessarily make you more open.
The key to changing attitudes is also looking at how people understand their faith. Religion is a huge driver of people’s behaviour. If people have a question about Islam, they send a fatwa by the internet or they call a sheikh on television. Giving them the education and skills to be able to interrogate Islam is absolutely vital. So they can understand that it’s not black and white in Islam. There are at least 50 shades of grey. I do think that the events of 2011 will lead us to a better place, but it’s a long and bumpy journey full of detours and U-turns.