Sex and the Citadel by Shereen El Feki

5191DGfgkML._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Hello February reading slump.

Sometimes I can’t focus on any story I pick up and when that happens its best to turn to non-fiction. This is one I’ve had on my shelf for a while and it certainly told me a lot of things I had no idea about.

Sex and the Citadel sounds like quite a provocative title and when the book started with the author showing a room full of Egyptian housewives vibrators from the West I didn’t have very high hopes about the rest of it but fortunately I was proved wrong. Dr El Feki asks whether the Arab Spring will spur a sexual revolution and covers a range of topics from sexual freedom, single mothers, abortion, sex work, queerness… The Middle East covered in this book, as explained in the books prologue, covers countries from Tunisia to Pakistan but the star of the book is Egypt and the landmark uprising in Tahrir Square:

The achievement of Tahrir Square wasn’t just its grand political movement but the tiny personal battles fought and won against the frictions wearing down Egyptian society: between religions, classes, sexes, and generations.

This book is written by a scientist and the tone varies from informative, chatty, with a thread of humour and irony thorough it. Dr El Feki illustrates the horrific affect that hypocrisy in Muslim nations can bring from sexual tourism, families who pimp out their own daughters, the unequal attitudes to sex before marriage between men and women and the overall tool the patriarchy is for suppressing a nation from head of the family downwards. In contrast to this modern conservatism are quotes from the Quran, Islamic sex manuals from the 11th century and historical sources from a decadent and sensual Cairo. The structure of the book can be a bit disjointed and clumsy but I still recommend this as a very important piece of work.

This book is quite depressing to read. Maybe if I came from a completely detached point of view I could be objective about the analysis of sex across the Middle East but I have come across a lot of these frustrating views and traditions in real life although thankfully in very small doses.

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Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman

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“We do not kick ass the way the white girls do, in meetings of NOW or riot grrl. For us, it’s all about family.”

Its only January but I believe I have a strong contender for my book of the year. This anthology is a thousand moments of -I didn’t realise other people felt like this too.

Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman have assembled a collection of personal essays by young women writers of colour from a wide range of cultures and regions across America. These first-hand accounts express themes that you don’t tend to see in mainstream feminism (and why so many brown and black women feel alienated from it) like race, religion, family, community. ..There is a whole section devoted to Our Mothers: Refugees from a World on Fire. The result is one of the most interesting and emotive works on feminism I have ever read.

There are too many essays that touched me to mention here but some I empathised with were Dutiful Hijjas, Because You’re a Girl, Lost in the Indophile Translation and the bittersweet I sold my soul to rock and roll about the frustration of loving white rock music.

“These boys had the luxury to forget about colour, culture and class every single day of their lives. Perhaps I believed that through their music, I could vicariously forget about race too. For a few brief moments each day, I could step outside of my brown skin, unzipping it like a heavy winter coat. I’d turn up the music and dream not of being black or white, but a rock star.”

I recognised the same thing that these women noticed and that I saw growing up. Despite the patriarchal culture many WoC grew up in we are surrounded and brought up by strong women who sweated blood to keep us safe, fed and educated and yet still supported the myth that Men and Marriage were the way to have a good life.  And finally I saw put into words over and over again the struggle in trying to fight injustice in your own culture but afraid of validating the racists outside it, “…family is only a safe zone until you kiss another woman, question the faith or go to the movies with a white boy.

This is a book I’ll be re-reading for a long time. I’m so used to seeing white feminist media that dominates the mainstream (like the recent Suffragette film) that ignore the issues that I so needed addressing like Islamphobia, racism, queerphobia and culture clashes and how they all intersect with sexism. I found them all in this book and more.

From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

91gLCxv7LiL (1)I didn’t fully appreciate the Eurocentric bias of modern history until I read From the Ruins of Empire. Despite taking history at A-level and spending hours pouring over the Treaty of Versailles and the wider Paris Peace Treaties, this was the first I’d heard of the secret agreements to parcel up the Middle East between England and France, or the way Asian countries appealed desperately to the American President Wilson and were ultimately humiliated and betrayed. Suddenly the First World War’s beginnings (something that had never really made sense to me) took on a different slant when you took in the imperialist battle over lands in Asia.

From the first few pages I knew this book would have an enormous impact on me. It opens with the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905 and the consequences of a defeat of a European power that spread across the world. It was raved about in the newspapers, babies in Indian villages were named after Japanese generals; students from the Muslim world were sent to study in Tokyo to learn the secrets of the first Asian-Euro victory in centuries…

And I thought why haven’t I heard of this before? I studied history up to A-level. I grew up in Britain and learnt about the Vikings, Normans, WW1, WW2, the Russian revolution, Victorian Britain, Henry the Eight, and yet the British Empire – the carnage it caused and its eventual defeat was never taught in any class I took. This battle in 1905 is arguably one of the most iconic events of the 20th century but Mishra mentions in his bibliography that there are surprisingly few books written on the event even now.

This book is remarkable not just because Mishra is documenting the Empire from a viewpoint we rarely hear but also because he focuses not on the key players of the era- Mao, Ghandi- but lesser known individuals to the western world. Intellectuals such as the journalist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and the reformer Liang Qichao, born a generation later,are so important, Mishra illustrates, because the messages they preached are still inspiring events that occur in the modern day Asia.

It would take too long to list all the things that shocked me in this book from the atrocities of war and invasion to the manipulation of hooking a people on opium so as to manipulate and beggar them.  I already knew the devastation that the Empire caused but even that didn’t prepare me for the utter immorality I read about in this book.

It is hard not to feel vindicated as the power balance shifts to India and China at the end of the book as we read through the ruins of civilisations so the West can have their luxuries but Mishra also illustrates the dark flaws and corruption that occurred in trying to beat Europe at their own game whether that is Japanese Imperialism, Islamic Fundamentalism or Mao’s Communist China. If you want to understand more about current events in the world around us I strongly recommend this book.