In the last year or so, the concept of feminism and who is or isn't a feminist has garnered quite a bit of media play. Female celebrities, like Shailene Woodley and Taylor Swift, have come out and said that they aren't feminists or don't identify with the term. Additionally, for the first time in U.S. history, the rights and beliefs of corporations were allowed to precede the rights and beliefs of individuals in the realm of women's health care choices. Adding more fuel to the fire, we somewhat recently crossed the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, when all the while, the term "war on women" was being slung back and forth across the aisles of congress. Fast forwarding to just last week, Patricia Arquette lobbied for equal pay and rights for women in her Oscar acceptance speech, only to be later decried by certain cultural subsections, that she apparently didn't do it correctly.
Yes, it's been an intense time for women. Which started me thinking about how belly dance fits into all of this. Whether directly or indirectly, I think all belly dancers at some time or another have been looked down on as being engaged in some low-brow type of profession, only one step up from strippers and prostitutes. Of course, this varies greatly by country, with these type of stereotypes existing heavily in certain parts of the world and less so in others. But I don't think that in any country, do belly dancers ever really escape fully from under this umbrella when viewed by society at large. This in turn puts belly dancers in a societal category that may potentially not represent a position of empowerment for women. Which made me question: is there any truth to this?
Is dancing around in a form-fitting, abdomen and cleavage revealing costume degrading to women? Is getting paid based on a presentation of one's body, in conjunction with the custom of accepting body tips, a step backward for women? Does the realm of women's equality have room for gyrating hips and shoulder shimmies? Is a women who presents herself this way in public asking to be objectified and stereotyped? Is she reinforcing ideas that a woman's value resides solely in exterior beauty?
In short, is belly dance anti-feminist?
To answer this, I think we need to start at square one. What actually is feminism? I personally believe that many of the starlets who have come out and said that they aren't feminists is due to not having a correct understanding what that word really means, and instead associating the label with negative connotations that have accumulated around it. Per Webster's dictionary, feminism is "the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities."
That's it. Pretty simple. Some people may have come to mistakenly believe that feminism or a feminist is a bra-burning, man-hater, who wants women to rise to the top at the expense of men. While I'm sure that there are some women out there who feel this way, that's not the true definition of feminism. Let's now laser down onto this definition of feminism in the context of belly dance. Thus when asking if belly dance is anti-feminist, I'm really asking, is belly dance acting against the equal rights and opportunities of women?
While some of the initial answers to the questions I posed above might lean toward the answer of yes, especially by those not intimately involved in belly dance or the belly dance community, I believe that the deeper, underlying answers are all resounding nos. And I think that it all comes back to that concept of equality. Equality is just that: equal at all times and in all respects. It's the exact opposite of what one of the characters in George Orwell's Animal Farm famously said, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." Women aren't equal only when they choose to engage in certain "condoned" and "respected" activities. They are, and should be considered, equal all the time. Thus, a dancer on stage is just as equal as a mother at home with her children. A woman in a revealing outfit is just as equal as a women covering all of her skin. Belly dancers stand up for this idea of equality at all times and in all circumstances by refusing to let any negative connotations or stereotypes stand in their way, and instead hold fast in their dedication to, and passion for, their art form.
I also believe that in addition to this argument, belly dance is actually very pro-feminist based on the way it makes women who engage in it feel. Belly dance provides an outlet for creative expression for women of all ages, sizes and nationalities. Frankly, there aren't many dance genres out there where this is a true statement. From first-hand experience and from observing other dancers, I believe that belly dance fosters confidence and self-esteem in women, as performing gives women an opportunity and a platform to stand up in front of a room full of people and command their attention and their respect. Overall, I see belly dancers as a very confident and empowered group of women, who don't care what society's standards may think of them. They believe they have the right, and take advantage of the opportunity, to present and express themselves as they deem fitting through their art form. They embrace their bodies and aren't afraid to tastefully reveal them, knowing that a women's body isn't inherently sinful, nor does it require covering because someone else said so. They know that beauty isn't one size fits all and that they don't need to conform to a certain mold to feel good in their own skin. Through their practice, teaching and performance, they take time out of their day to focus on themselves and what brings them joy, rather than just executing the tasks that conventional society may say a woman "should" be doing.
I think one of the most important tenants of feminism is respecting each other's choices and realizing that feminism means the freedom to pick the life of your choosing and still command respect and equality, whether that means being a dancer, mother, or executive. Whether that means wearing a dance costume, a power suit, a bikini, sweatpants, or nothing at all. And I see belly dance as intrinsically part of this choice and part of a woman's right to be who she feels called to be.
Yes, I truly believe that belly dance is one step on the long and winding ladder to elevate women up toward equality. So to my sisters in dance I say, dance long and proud. You are beautiful. You are equal. You are valuable. You are a feminist.
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