One of the Egyptian media’s favourite topics is female licentiousness presented in the form of moral outrage, because it allows readers to consume material of a sexual nature under the veil of condemnation.
Persecution of minorities presented as sexual deviants has also proved to be a useful political tool for regimes with no real sense of who they are or what they stand for. It allows them to both define themselves in terms of what they’re not (rather than what they are) and claim the moral high ground against a bespoke threat from perverts and degenerates. Usually this is a threat that exists only in their heads, and on newspaper front pages and it proves useful when trying to deflect attention from incidents of torture and rape committed by the police against members of the public.
In the tumult of recent years the Egyptian media has, even more than it did during the Mubarak years, appointed itself a moral guardian whose job is to hold the general public – rather than those in power – to account. This is not restricted to the state media; private channels have also espoused this philosophy, most shrilly during the hysteria following June 30 2013 when – having been brought to the precipice of the abyss of Brotherhood rule but rescued at the last moment – Egyptian society decided it was all hands on deck against the Islamist threat.
Media outlets that criticised the army, or the police, or flagged human rights abuses confirmed the nagging suspicion harboured by some members of the general public that the media is indeed a fifth column and part of the grand, evil plot against Egypt. Television presenters openly – and proudly – declared that it is the media’s role to support the government in its fight against terror; Egypt had given democracy a spin and look where it took us. Good governance through accountability be damned.
This paternalism is not restricted to the media. Members of Egypt’s artistic community have also taken upon themselves the job of protecting Egypt from the array of ills threatening it, in the process trampling all over what the point of art actually is, or rather assigning to it a purpose that it doesn’t have. The result is a clarion call for the ugly thing that is el fan el mowagah – “guided art” – or art with a message. In practice this translates into long phone-ins on chat shows where irate pompous personages from the world of cinema and television lament Egyptian society’s moral dissolution and the expression of this disintegration via the bouncing tits and gyrating bottoms threatening to burst through our screens and destroy public morals. As a society filmmakers and artists should be more concerned with the body politic than the body, is the message. Egypt after all is at war; with Islamists. With Shi’ites. With homosexuals. With Atheists.
As usual, in the majority of cases moral condemnation is usually directed at expressions of female sexuality (the exception is where the subject matter pertains to homosexuality). This condemnation rests on two central untruths:
1. As god-fearing upstanding citizens, Egyptian men do not consume sex in any form outside of the bedroom with their spouse(s).
2. Women are sexual objects who do no and should not enjoy sex and do not have agency over their involvement in any aspect of it.
The reality is something else entirely of course. Like every normal community of human beings Egyptian society is dripping with sex despite its conservatism; film producer Ahmed Sobky has not made his millions through films about knitting. Tamer Hosny did not become a pop superstar because of his voice; there is a market for hirsute men singing about endless devotion. One hit wonder Ruby’s song “laih bydary keda” went viral because men are not opposed to gawping at a crisp 20 year old riding an exercise bike. Like young people everywhere teenagers – male and female, veiled and unveiled – prowl the streets of Cairo in spray-on denim and clothes so tight that if it is true that god resides in the hearts of the god-fearing we’d be able to see his outline through their jumpers.
The problem of the untruths remains, however. The solution lies in blame. If the purpose of art and culture is to edify and educate and protect morals then any infringement of that is a crime against society, and this includes women who are overtly sexual in the public realm without permission (we’ll go back to permission later). Consumers of this “filth” are thus victims rather than villains.
The separate interviews of two women on television this week aptly illustrates all this. In the first Bardees, a woman who describes herself as a belly dancer, appeared on Tony Khalifa’s “Secrets from Under the Bridge” show. Khalifa has built a career on sensationalism and this episode was no exception. Bardees has made a cover version of “ya wad ya te2eel”, a song penned by legendary poet Salah Jaheen and sung by darling of Egyptian cinema Soad Hosny in the 1970s.
The video is a garish nightmare; Bardees is not a singer (as she herself acknowledges in the Khalifa interview) and attempts to make up for that with turbo-charged dala3 (in this context the closest translation is coquettishness) and sexually suggestive movements involving telephones and mops.
Bardees in her interview gives an impassioned defence of her oeuvre against intense bullying by: Khalifa, an art critic, Soad Hosny’s sister, composer Kamal el Taweel’s son and Salah Jaheen’s son. Khalifa’s problem with her clip is that it is a cover of a song written and performed by two revered cultural institutions. The art critic condemns the fact that every instant of the video clip is sexually provocative. He has faith however hat the general public that will reject such offerings and that Bardees will enjoy her 15 seconds of fame and then disappear like so many before her. Both men argued that Soad Hosny’s brand of dala3 was a different (more respectable) animal than Bardees’. Salah Jaheen’s son declared that the song has no connection with art and that it is sex presented in the basest of ways. He informed Bardees directly that she has “committed a crime”.
There was a strange – and telling – moment in the interview when Khalifa tried to force Bardees to reveal which Egyptian governorate she is from. Bardees deflected the question coquettishly with much hair flicking and batting of eyelids but Khalifa persisted in the manner of a police officer conducting an interrogation. After Bardees refused to reveal her origins Khalifa suggested that this is because either she is ashamed of her hometown or it is ashamed of her. “I’m asking so that anyone who wants to demand your hand in marriage knows where to go”, he said. But the truth is that he is asking because a woman’s honour is like jelly, and requires an exterior mould (of sanction and approval) for it to remain upright and intact; in pressing her on where she is from Khalifa is obliquely suggesting that she lacks this, that her family and familiars have spurned her. In short that she is a whore. I tried to imagine a similar line of interrogation directed at a male guest and failed.
None of this is to suggest that Bardees’ offering has any artistic merit: it doesn’t. She cannot sing and dances badly. The video is crude and ugly and painful to watch. Household items are abused in it. But this is a song, an act, a pretence. It offers a world of fantasy just as Soad Hosny and her band of belly-dancers in the original version of ya wad ya te2eel did, albeit in a more tasteful fashion. It should not be used as a yardstick to measure Bardees’ moral value, or to beat her with.
Ultimately Soad Hosny’s little girl act is selling the same thing as Bardees: dala3/sex. I wonder if a contemporary female artist made a video in which she twirled around her bedroom in an above the knee skirt and threw herself on the bed and then danced with half naked belly-dancers what the reaction would be. There is a strange disjoint between the past and the present that allows the same people who vocally condemn overt displays of female sexuality today to fondly remember the golden age of Egyptian art when you could not move for legs and boobs and wobbling waists. It again goes back to this idea of a women’s honour being defined by others and thus, by extension, for her being given permission to demonstrate her sexuality. Soad Hosny had this permission, Bardees does not. But that does not stop broadcasters like Khalifa from titillating viewers with her video; he just has to package it in an interview in which he bullies and humiliates her so his viewers can watch with a clear conscience.
I enjoyed watching this interview with Mona Hala, a Youtube comedian who was big a couple of years ago and who is currently pursuing an acting career in the United States because she rejects all this nonsense.
Mona seems to have been invited onto chat show el bayt baytak for no other reason than she posted pictures of herself in a bikini with her boyfriend on Facebook. The pictures were shown on the show and they are remarkably anodyne. Think about that for a second: a woman invited onto a prime time television show for an almost 30 minutes segment because of some holiday snaps, and then – again – interrogated by the presenters about her choices.
There is a glorious moment when Mona mentions her “friend”, using a term that could mean a platonic acquaintance but is often used to refer to an amorous relationship. The presenter asks her to clarify and Mona confirms yes, her boyfriend, without missing a beat. There is a hugely (9-month) pregnant (possible out of wedlock) pause before the presenter says ok, and laughs the laugh of the quietly morally astonished and outraged.
The other presenter then – NEWSFLASH – informs her that Egypt is a (conservative) eastern society [and that she is thus breaking numerous rules of probity]. Mona responds by telling him that she is no longer living in that society and that just as she does not judge others morally, she would like not to be judged.
Using the Khalifa method, the female presenter then questions her about her family’s reaction to the pictures, noting that Mona’s sister wears the neqab, the implication being surely their reaction was to condemn her to hellfire [because she is a dissolute woman]. After being pressed, Mona says that her sister’s reaction was to say “may god guide you [to the right path]”. The presenter pounces: “so your sister thinks that you are not guided [by god] then” she says, lingeringly. Later, she asks why Mona has not thought about marrying her boyfriend, to which Mona replies that she is.
“The problem is that eastern society has a problem with any woman who lives her life freely,” Mona correctly says, after being subjected to yet another condescending lecture by one of the presenters. Would a male actor be invited onto a television programme because he posted pictures with his girlfriend on the beach? Would he be interrogated about his family’s reaction to these photographs? Would he be subjected to a sanctimonious lecture about eastern society and its morals? Would roughly 5 minutes of a 25 minute interview be devoted to what that actor is actually doing, his projects and future plans after a tedious inquisition? These are all rhetorical questions.
So good for Mona for not buckling to these patronising dullards, imprisoned by societal norms and their lack of imagination. And while Bardees’ brand of entertainment is not my cup of tea, and leaving a discussion of artistic quality aside, she, in her own way, is fighting a battle similar to Mona’s – with the caveat that I wonder what degree of autonomy in her choices the entertainment industry allows her – but that’s a separate discussion. If her sexuality is crudely expressed that says more about the debasement of cultural output in modern Egypt than it does about Bardees. Without wishing to present her as a feminist trailblazer the fact remains that she is asserting her sexuality and refusing to be shamed for it as society chastises her – without being able to drag their eyes away.