Monday, June 15, 2015

Sobering Snapshot of Present Day Egypt

Frequently, I get the sense that belly dancers think of Egypt as the "motherland"; a romanticized and revered locale where it all started. But is this rose-colored Western lens really accurate? For belly dancers outside of Egypt, how much do we actually know about current day Egypt?

I recently attended a panelist discussion hosted by Humanities Washington on the topic Unveiled: Feminism, Orientalism, and Perceptions of the Middle East. The panelist speakers were Yussef El Guindi, award-winning playwright of Threesome; and Sarah Eltantawi, professor Middle Eastern Studies and Comparative Religion at The Evergreen State College, with moderation by Zaki Barak Hamid, program director at Humanities Washington and Middle Eastern film instructor at Edmonds Community College.

From the discussion, with question and answer interaction from the audience, I was reminded of some sobering facts about Egypt today. Let's begin by painting a picture of what Egypt is currently looking like.

I think we are all aware that in 2011, Egypt had a revolution, lead primary by its young people, that resulting in the ousting of the dictator Mubarak, and the election of Muhammad Morsi, Morsi became Egypt's first ever democratically elected leader. However, Morsi was also a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which lead to him promoting an agenda that did not correlate back to the original ideals of the revolution.  Instead, Morsi's actions involved granting himself almost unlimited power and silencing journalists and protesters, frequently with violence and prosecution. This unpopular agenda lead to the 2013 military coup lead by the Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that removed President Morsi from power and suspended the Egyptian constitution. Leaving us where we find Egypt today.

What has all of this meant to Egyptians and in particular, Egyptian women?

All of the unrest has dealt a staggering blow to Egypt's main industry: tourism. With tourists opting out of visiting Egypt in record numbers, a $5 billion hole has been left in the economy, leading to widespread unemployment and poverty, and what many are calling the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Many Egyptians are now financially and socially worse off than before the revolution. Some even turning to criminal acts to provide for their families, as documented in the Vice segment, Egyptian Tomb Raiders, which explores how the black market for plundering Egyptian antiquities has turned into a $3 billion-dollar industry.

Also up in record numbers, is sexual harassment and violence toward women. A recent study reported that 99.3% of Egyptian women report being sexually harassed.  Almost every single woman in the country. Which begs the question, why is the sheer fact of being in public space such an issue for so many Egyptian women? Many theories suggest a link between the frustration and anger felt toward the Egyptian government and economy, With no other outlets, this anger and frustration is being taken out on women. Many also hold the belief that this anger is further inflamed by Egyptians' unprecedented access to TV and social media which allows  them to see what the rest of the developing world has, but they themselves cannot attain. The stark contrast of the haves, and the have nots.

Oddly enough, this backlash against women comes at a time when Egypt is much more conservative than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Twenty to 30 years ago, women who wore the hijab in Egypt were the minority, whereas in the current day, they vastly comprise the majority. This conservatism can also be seen in the realm of belly dance, as there have been increasing restrictions on dancers, such as having to cover the abdomen, as well as increased judgment and scorn of dancers.

Where did this increased conservatism come from? Much of it can be attributed to Egyptian men leaving the country for jobs in Iraq, and upon returning, carrying with them the strict conservative values and religion of that country and people.

So where does this leave Westerners who are outside looking in? Reading and hearing about the present day plight of the Egyptian people can elicit a wide range of responses as a Westerner. However, the panel discussion highlighted and questioned some of the common responses that occur when Westerners judge Eastern societies through an often distorted lens.

One of these common misconceptions that the panelist highlighted is the idea of cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism is the idea that the West is "right" and the East is "wrong", and that the West has a duty as a more "advanced" culture to "fix" these other societies. That as Westerners, we somehow have the right to say what is correct and incorrect for another country or culture; that we get to be the judges and police of what is cultural authenticity and what needs to be rejected. One very common area where this attitude comes up is in the realm of women's attire. Westerners frequently assume that a woman wearing a hijab or niqab, or otherwise forced to dress conservatively, directly correlates to a lack of rights or equality for women, and thus that it's the West's imperative to change this. An example of this can be seen in France's fairly recent decision to outlaw the any sort of face covering in public.

The panelists proposed the idea that there is no direct correlation between a woman's attire and her rights. Instead, they argued that Westerners have a misconception that a women's dress equates directly to her freedom. The idea was proposed that a Western woman's right to wear reveling clothes does not make her equal or ensure that she has equal rights. And I would say this is a valid point, as even in the United States today where women can dress as revealing as they want, women are still not paid equal wages, and in recent years there has been a constant chipping away at a women's right to choose when and how she reproduces. Some would argue that the inverse is actually true, in that wearing a hijab or otherwise being more conservatively dressed, forces men to interact with women on a level that is not about physical aesthetic or attraction, but instead is about mutual humanity and respect. However, a further counterpoint has been made that a person's humanity and individuality disappear behind the hijab or niqab, allowing acts like sexual harassment and assault to proliferate because the woman has been de-personalized.

Overall, it's a highly complex situation. One that I certainly won't claim to have the answers to. During the panel discussion, Elantanwi gave her opinion that Egypt's current economic and gender issues cannot be resolved by external forces, that they have to be dealt with from the inside. Whatever the solution is, I hope that for the sake of not only Egyptian women, but women worldwide, that as a collective global race, we can move toward a place of equality, respect, stability, and opportunity for all.

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