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  • So when I was in Morocco,

  • in Casablanca, not so long ago,

  • I met a young unmarried mother called Faiza.

  • Faiza showed me photos of her infant son

  • and she told me the story of his conception, pregnancy, and delivery.

  • It was a remarkable tale,

  • but Faiza saved the best for last.

  • "You know, I am a virgin," she told me.

  • "I have two medical certificates to prove it."

  • This is the modern Middle East,

  • where two millennia after the coming of Christ,

  • virgin births are still a fact of life.

  • Faiza's story is just one of hundreds I've heard over the years, traveling across the Arab region

  • talking to people about sex.

  • Now, I know this might sound like a dream job,

  • or possibly a highly dubious occupation,

  • but for me, it's something else altogether.

  • I'm half Egyptian, and I'm Muslim.

  • But I grew up in Canada, far from my Arab roots.

  • Like so many who straddle East and West,

  • I've been drawn, over the years, to try to better understand my origins.

  • That I chose to look at sex comes from my background in HIV/AIDS,

  • as a writer and a researcher and an activist.

  • Sex lies at the heart of an emerging epidemic in the Middle East and North Africa,

  • which is one of only two regions in the world where HIV/AIDS is still on the rise.

  • Now sexuality is an incredibly powerful lens

  • with which to study any society,

  • because what happens in our intimate lives

  • is reflected by forces on a bigger stage:

  • in politics and economics, in religion and tradition, in gender and generations.

  • As I found, if you really want to know a people,

  • you start by looking inside their bedrooms.

  • Now to be sure, the Arab world is vast and varied.

  • But running across it are three red lines --

  • these are topics you are not supposed to challenge in word or deed.

  • The first of these is politics.

  • But the Arab Spring has changed all that,

  • in uprisings which have blossomed across the region since 2011.

  • Now while those in power, old and new,

  • continue to cling to business as usual,

  • millions are still pushing back,

  • and pushing forward to what they hope will be a better life.

  • That second red line is religion.

  • But now religion and politics are connected,

  • with the rise of such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood.

  • And some people, at least, are starting to ask questions

  • about the role of Islam in public and private life.

  • You know, as for that third red line, that off-limits subject,

  • what do you think it might be?

  • Audience: Sex.

  • Shereen El Feki: Louder, I can't hear you.

  • Audience: Sex.

  • SEF: Again, please don't be shy.

  • Audience: Sex.

  • SEF: Absolutely, that's right, it's sex. (Laughter)

  • Across the Arab region, the only accepted context for sex is marriage --

  • approved by your parents, sanctioned by religion

  • and registered by the state.

  • Marriage is your ticket to adulthood.

  • If you don't tie the knot, you can't move out of your parents' place,

  • and you're not supposed to be having sex,

  • and you're definitely not supposed to be having children.

  • It's a social citadel; it's an impregnable fortress

  • which resists any assault, any alternative.

  • And around the fortress is this vast field of taboo

  • against premarital sex, against condoms,

  • against abortion, against homosexuality,

  • you name it.

  • Faiza was living proof of this.

  • Her virginity statement was not a piece of wishful thinking.

  • Although the major religions of the region extoll premarital chastity,

  • in a patriarchy, boys will be boys.

  • Men have sex before marriage,

  • and people more or less turn a blind eye.

  • Not so for women,

  • who are expected to be virgins on their wedding night --

  • that is, to turn up with your hymen intact.

  • This is not a question of individual concern,

  • this is a matter of family honor, and in particular, men's honor.

  • And so women and their relatives

  • will go to great lengths to preserve this tiny piece of anatomy --

  • from female genital mutilation,

  • to virginity testing, to hymen repair surgery.

  • Faiza chose a different route:

  • non-vaginal sex.

  • Only she became pregnant all the same.

  • But Faiza didn't actually realize this,

  • because there's so little sexuality education in schools,

  • and so little communication in the family.

  • When her condition became hard to hide,

  • Faiza's mother helped her flee her father and brothers.

  • This is because honor killings are a real threat

  • for untold numbers of women in the Arab region.

  • And so when Faiza eventually fetched up at a hospital in Casablanca,

  • the man who offered to help her,

  • instead tried to rape her.

  • Sadly, Faiza is not alone.

  • In Egypt, where my research is focused,

  • I have seen plenty of trouble in and out of the citadel.

  • There are legions of young men

  • who can't afford to get married,

  • because marriage has become a very expensive proposition.

  • They are expected to bear the burden of costs in married life,

  • but they can't find jobs.

  • This is one of the major drivers of the recent uprisings,

  • and it is one of the reasons for the rising age of marriage

  • in much of the Arab region.

  • There are career women who want to get married,

  • but can't find a husband,

  • because they defy gender expectations,

  • or as one young female doctor in Tunisia put it to me,

  • "The women, they are becoming more and more open.

  • But the man, he is still at the prehistoric stage."

  • And then there are men and women who cross the heterosexual line,

  • who have sex with their own sex,

  • or who have a different gender identity.

  • They are on the receiving end of laws which punish their activities,

  • even their appearance.

  • And they face a daily struggle with social stigma,

  • with family despair,

  • and with religious fire and brimstone.

  • Now, it's not as if it's all rosy in the marital bed either.

  • Couples who are looking for greater happiness,

  • greater sexual happiness in their married lives,

  • but are at a loss of how to achieve it,

  • especially wives, who are afraid of being seen as bad women

  • if they show some spark in the bedroom.

  • And then there are those whose marriages

  • are actually a veil for prostitution.

  • They have been sold by their families,

  • often to wealthy Arab tourists.

  • This is just one face of a booming sex trade across the Arab region.

  • Now raise your hand if any of this is sounding familiar to you,

  • from your part of the world.

  • Yeah. It's not as if the Arab world has a monopoly on sexual hangups.

  • And although we don't yet have an Arab Kinsey Report

  • to tell us exactly what's happening inside bedrooms across the Arab region,

  • It's pretty clear that something is not right.

  • Double standards for men and women,

  • sex as a source of shame,

  • family control limiting individual choices,

  • and a vast gulf between appearance and reality:

  • what people are doing

  • and what they're willing to admit to,

  • and a general reluctance to move beyond private whispers

  • to a serious and sustained public discussion.

  • As one doctor in Cairo summed it up for me,

  • "Here, sex is the opposite of sport.

  • Football, everybody talks about it,

  • but hardly anyone plays.

  • But sex, everybody is doing it,

  • but nobody wants to talk about it." (Laughter)

  • (Music) (In Arabic)

  • SEF: I want to give you a piece of advice,

  • which if you follow it, will make you happy in life.

  • When your husband reaches out to you,

  • when he seizes a part of your body,

  • sigh deeply and look at him lustily.

  • When he penetrates you with his penis,

  • try to talk flirtatiously and move yourself in harmony with him.

  • Hot stuff!

  • And it might sound that these handy hints

  • come from "The Joy of Sex" or YouPorn.

  • But in fact, they come from a 10th-century Arabic book

  • called "The Encyclopedia of Pleasure,"

  • which covers sex from aphrodisiacs to zoophilia,

  • and everything in between.

  • The Encyclopedia is just one in a long line of Arabic erotica,

  • much of it written by religious scholars.

  • Going right back to the Prophet Muhammad,

  • there is a rich tradition in Islam

  • of talking frankly about sex:

  • not just its problems, but also its pleasures,

  • and not just for men, but also for women.

  • A thousand years ago, we used to have whole dictionaries of sex in Arabic.

  • Words to cover every conceivable sexual feature,

  • position and preference, a body of language

  • that was rich enough to make up the body of the woman you see on this page.

  • Today, this history is largely unknown in the Arab region.

  • Even by educated people, who often feel more comfortable talking about sex

  • in a foreign language than they do in their own tongue.

  • Today's sexual landscape looks a lot like Europe and America

  • on the brink of the sexual revolution.

  • But while the West has opened on sex,

  • what we found is that Arab societies appear to have been moving in the opposite direction.

  • In Egypt and many of its neighbors,

  • this closing down is part of a wider closing

  • in political, social and cultural thought.

  • And it is the product of a complex historical process,

  • one which has gained ground with the rise of Islamic conservatism

  • since the late 1970s.

  • "Just say no" is what conservatives around the world

  • say to any challenge to the sexual status quo.

  • In the Arab region, they brand these attempts as a Western conspiracy

  • to undermine traditional Arab and Islamic values.

  • But what's really at stake here

  • is one of their most powerful tools of control:

  • sex wrapped up in religion.

  • But history shows us that even as recently

  • as our fathers' and grandfathers' day,

  • there have been times of greater pragmatism,

  • and tolerance, and a willingness to consider other interpretations:

  • be it abortion, or masturbation, or even the incendiary topic of homosexuality.

  • It is not black and white, as conservatives would have us believe.

  • In these, as in so many other matters,

  • Islam offers us at least 50 shades of gray.

  • (Laughter)

  • Over my travels,

  • I've met men and women across the Arab region

  • who've been exploring that spectrum --

  • sexologists who are trying to help couples

  • find greater happiness in their marriages,

  • innovators who are managing to get sexuality education into schools,

  • small groups of men and women,

  • lesbian, gay, transgendered, transsexual,

  • who are reaching out to their peers

  • with online initiatives and real-world support.

  • Women, and increasingly men, who are starting to speak out

  • and push back against sexual violence

  • on the streets and in the home.

  • Groups that are trying to help sex workers protect themselves against HIV

  • and other occupational hazards,

  • and NGOs that are helping unwed mothers like Faiza

  • find a place in society, and critically, stay with their kids.

  • Now these efforts are small, they're often underfunded,

  • and they face formidable opposition.

  • But I am optimistic that, in the long run,

  • times are changing, and they and their ideas

  • will gain ground.

  • Social change doesn't happen in the Arab region through dramatic confrontation,

  • beating or indeed baring of breasts,

  • but rather through negotiation.

  • What we're talking here is not about a sexual revolution,

  • but a sexual evolution, learning from other parts of the world,

  • adapting to local conditions,

  • forging our own path, not following one blazed by another.

  • That path, I hope, will one day lead us to the right to control our own bodies,

  • and to access the information and services we need

  • to lead satisfying and safe sexual lives.

  • The right to express our ideas freely,

  • to marry whom we choose, to choose our own partners,

  • to be sexually active or not, to decide whether to have children and when,

  • all this without violence or force or discrimination.

  • Now we are very far from this across the Arab region,