Meditations on the navel ban
[ opinion - july 04 ]
Egyptian TV viewers are questioning the appropriateness of suggestive music videos in a traditional, Islamic culture, saying they fear for "their daughter's morals". Last year, the exuberantly nubile Lebanese singer Nancy Agram excited the wrath of the People's Assembly, who called for a ban and fines to channels airing her video, though their threats were widely ignored. Recently, however, an Egyptian girl named Rubi upset members of parliament and the TV authority enough to institute a ban (affecting state-owned TV) on music videos where women's navels appear. In a characteristic mix of probity, lust and national pride, a Music Syndicate official described Rubi as a 'sex-bomb' whereas Nancy is merely a 'sex-pot'.
Against the onslaught of unrestricted and racy satellite broadcasting, Egypt's latest censorial gesture is reminiscent of the legendary little Dutch boy who held back the flood by placing his finger in the dyke. So far 700 offending videos have been banned, mainly Lebanese productions and some Egyptian ones. But lest we accuse Egypt of being alarmist or old-fashioned, it's worth noting that American television imposed a similar restriction in the midst of the permissive Sixties. Curiously, a sitcom inspired by the 1001 Nights elicited the navel ban. I Dream of Genie was a classic piece of sexist kitsch featuring a curvy actress wearing a jewelled bra and gauzy pants that started out as hip-huggers and ended up around her waist.
It's hard to say why the navel is such a point of contention; perhaps for its notorious proximity to the you-know-what. In all events, the navel's veiling and unveiling has long been a barometer of authoritarian mores in Egypt, where the local art of belly-dancing celebrates earthy femininity, and earns practitioners equal parts adoration and prurient scorn. In 1834 Mohammed Ali issued an edict banishing belly dancers and prostitutes from the capital so as not to offend foreign visitors, a move that sparked an upsurge of tourism in Luxor and Aswan. By the 1920s, belly-dancers were back in business in Cairo clubs, and the street named for the stodgy Mohammed Ali had ironically become the center for practicing the dance.
The socialist era brought another turnaround; belly-dancing was restricted once more and people were encouraged to develop a taste for ballet. A disgruntled public called for the reinstatement of its favorite dance and the government complied, with the proviso that the belly and navel of the dancer be covered. The law remains intact, although sheer, flesh-colored nylon defeats it daily. Despite varying degrees of defiance, belly-dancers (once the stars of stage and screen) and their bouncy pop-video counterparts must negotiate the cross-currents of social ambivalence.
Although belly dancing is an expression of joy enjoined by women as well as men of every age on many occasions, professional dancers are generally viewed as little better than whores. Egyptian law once prevented belly dancers from testifying in court. Religious injunctions sanction their participation in rituals like the giving alms during Ramadan or participating in the hajj. Indeed, lady entertainers deal with any number of annoyances. Rubi the singing and dancing sex bomb, for instance, was reprimanded for wearing short skirts to school, and must endure the company of campus security guards while attending class. But this is nothing compared to the fate recently assigned foreign belly dancers performing in Egypt. They are no longer allowed on stage, not for moral so much as economic reasons, or so the authorities would have us believe.
Apparently, the approximately 30 or so foreigners dancing in Egypt prevent the local girls from making their living. This seems odd, not just because the foreigners are so outnumbered, but because Egyptian dancers are considered to be the most gifted. Whether or not this is so, Egyptians are not necessarily the most schooled; belly-dancing has not been dignified in Egypt as a branch of dance studies. Women usually learn from each other and the foreigners are assiduous students who regard their (Egyptian) teachers as gurus. The foreigners' willingness to practice diligently, to perfect their techniques as well as create new routines, had instilled life into the dance and inspired healthy competition. Egypt's lawmakers nevertheless saw fit to overlook the pressing items on their dockets in favor of the ruling against foreigners, insisting it was designed to encourage the local market.
The truth is, of course, the opposite, since markets thrive on diversity, where consumers are allowed to choose. Perhaps a local preference for blonds or foreign physiognomies, especially long-limbed Russian ones, is what everyone was worried about, especially the local dancers who expect top billing in Cairo's five-star hotels and at the weddings of the wealthy. It's quite possible that they've communicated their anxiety to the politically powerful protectors they often cultivate as career assets, in a manner best described as convincing. The market is tightening, the local audience shrinking due to economic as well as societal constraints. Religion is fashionable these days in Cairo, and upper-middle-class women, as well as poorer ones, use the veil as a kind of status symbol. The resulting ambiance is hardly conducive to jubilant sensuality.
Not that all of Cairo's women take this rigidified climate lying down. As reported by Christopher Walker in the Cairo Times, a group of young Arab ladies calling themselves "the vagina warriors" recently produced a performance of the Vagina Monologues, donating the proceeds to the first women's shelter in Cairo and the Middle East. Domestic abuse is not higher in Egypt than elsewhere, but it doesn't have to be. Many and subtle are the forms of violence to which Egyptian women have grown inured. On the unsubtle side we have Mohammed Omar, columnist for the state-owned daily Al-Akhbar, who maintains that only ugly women attract abuse and every man "[has] the right to do what [abusive] men have done". No wonder the Vagina Monologues were not advertised and the recipients of email or word-of-mouth invitations warned to keep it "confidential". The American University, where the play was performed, went so far as to post a sign outside the theater door claiming disingenuously that it had no connection with the production.
Although it played to packed houses, the piece was presented in English, rendering it inaccessible to those who might find its discussions of masturbation, menstruation and rape most instructive. Indeed, it may be a while before Egypt's vagina warriors gather strength for the final siege. Meanwhile, the navel has gone underground, inverted you might say, and the satellite-dish business is booming. But it's only a matter of time.
This article appears courtesy of the Middle East International, London.