Friday,16 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Friday,16 November, 2018
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Celebrating shame

On the occasion of Egyptian Woman’s Day (16 March), Al-Ahram Weekly reviews the female figure on the Egyptian stage

Taheya Carioca ran the gamut of possible character

While everybody celebrates March as the month of acknowledging and empowering women all over the world, and while Egypt too celebrates the Egyptian Woman’s Day and declares 2017 the year of women’s empowerment, the image of the Egyptian woman on stage remains bogged down in a tradition of shaming the female performer. In this celebration of women, I am paying a closer look at the way women are usually portrayed and how female performers are still placed on the margins of Egyptian society.

The Egyptian theatre was shamed by its birth in the sphere of entertainment, a sphere that is regarded by the Egyptian value system and morality as indecent. To this sphere of entertainment also belonged Oriental dance, one man/woman shows, song and music and above all the culture of nightclubs, which reigned in Rod Elfarag and Emad Eddinne (downtown Cairo). To this sphere belonged the performers who later contributed in the 1920s and 1930s to the development of Egyptian theatre, among whom was a large number of female performers including Oriental dancers – and sometimes singers – who turned to acting. In order to understand the journey of Egyptian theatre and its growth, it is necessary to acknowledge those roots. In them dwells the huge role of female Egyptian performers who originated as Oriental dancers and emerged out of nightclubs, yet quickly transformed into actresses and fervently enriched the acting scene whether on stage or on screen. Such women also became prominent producers of theatre and film, and either founded prestigious theatre companies where they acted as artistic directors or became film producers and lead actresses. Among them were Aziza Ameer (1901-1952), Asia Dagher (1901-1986) and Fatma Roshdy (1908-1996).


Amina Rizk almost always embodied the decent mother

Nonetheless, Egyptian society with its considerable level of social hypocrisy, dealt with female performers in general as pseudo prostitutes. In a patriarchal system where women do not own their bodies, where they are supposed to fit into the image of the religious mother or the obedient wife or the doll-like daughter, it was impossible to recognise those women who aimed to shape their own identities, femininities and careers. They were clearly dangerous to the common morality, outcasts who must be punished. And punishment always came in the form of exclusion and shaming. The women who became performers knew that by this choice their lives would never be the same, they would never be admitted to the social catregory of “decent women” and “decent families”.

Such social discrimination never affected fascination with the beauty and sensuality of the female performers. People allowed themselves to enjoy the performances of those female artists while also shaming them. The spectators practiced the double role of enjoying their spectatorship and the entertainment offered to them while projecting back to the female performer a judgment of shame. In this double role the average Egyptian spectator found the correct balance between satisfying their fascination with beauty and sensuality, and safeguarding their so-called morality. In this process the spectator managed to wash off the guilt of the pleasure of entertainment by strictly judgmental social positioning.

The initial shaming of entertainment in general was part of the culture of social hypocrisy where enjoying the entertainment depended on the acknowledgement that it was shameful business. More specifically the fascination with the female performer, her beauty, body, femininity, talent and charisma, was at the heart of the paradox related to all the performing arts in Egypt. With this fascination the spectator was in danger of becoming inferior to his object of desire, therefore a certain empowerment would be indirectly given to the female performer in the form of a female victory against the status quo and the ruling patriarchal system. Whether this victory was well earned or not, it would destabilise social norms and gender politics. One exceptional model is Taheya Carioca, the diva who also operated as a political activist and confronted many obstacles on her own. Carioca remains very special as an Oriental dancer, actress and even theatre producer, though her choice to wear hijab later in her life also places her in a less confrontational category in spite of the political role she continued playing through to the time of her death.


Taheya Carioca ran the gamut of possible character

Listening to the legendary movie start Mahmoud Hemeida several days ago, I was confident that part of women’s empowerment in Egyptian society has to go through their position within the performing arts, not only through revolting against the shaming of women working in that vast field of culture and entertainment, but also by analysing and revise the kind of female images the performing arts are offering society and the pedagogy of the new generations. Hemeida insisted that the general view of actors and actresses in Egyptian society is that they are immoral and indecent, that performers are still regarded as outcasts that nobody would welcome into their families. The famous example stated by Hemeida was given for decades in all the gatherings where I heard an actress complaining that her parents refuse such a career for her: no respectable parents would let their son marry an actress!

The issue of honour is of extreme importance here, since Egyptian society puts much emphasis on the notion of honour. Yet it is a form of honour that is only connected to chastity. Virginity still dominates the scene when it comes to the concept of the decency of the unmarried female. In the case of the female stage performer, there would be a hidden agreement that she lost her virginity the moment she stepped on stage. I rather consider this verdict to be of a symbolic nature. The female stage performer, like her female colleagues on screen, is robbed of her honour, her symbolic virginity. When she agrees to let her body be seen by the spectators knowing she is being looked at and enjoyed, submitting to the male gaze, when she decides that her profession is being watched, the female performer has agreed to become dishonoured, for no honourable woman would intentionally and professionally offer her body to the male gaze.


Sanaa Gamil ran the gamut of possible character

In the journeys of the early female performers and producers in Egyptian theatre, more specifically in the 1920s and 1930s, many women shifted from Oriental dance to a strictly  acting career. This shift was supposed to be seen as (among other things) a step closer to the morals of the society, one that would eventually reduce the female shaming as much as that female would move away from her physicality and sexual visibility. Clearly an actress who is not wearing the Oriental dance costume, not dancing and not putting her femininity forward would be much more welcome in the social system than an Oriental dancer. Yet those actresses carried their histories of dance onto the stage. And the image of the actress as an indecent woman persisted.

Over several decades the portrayal of Egyptian women on stage did not break the social dichotomy of decent-indecent. The power of the pioneering female producers and leaders of theatre companies did not succeed in re-shaping the female images presented on stage. It is possible that even those pioneering women contributed to extending those traditional and patriarchal images by reproducing them or at least not offering an alternative. Their rebellion within their personal lives to become artists was not developed into a rebellion against society via performance. Their performances were not as critical as they themselves were.

The female images on the Egyptian stage in general did not escape the traditional scope: the religious mother, the obedient wife, the pleasant daughter, the loyal fiancée, the strict mother-in-law, the greedy wife, the funny aunt, the jealous wife, the kind maid, the poor mother, the righteous mother, etc. All those characters were clearly shaped only according to the realm of possibilities given within “authorised” culture. Therefore many characters and images of Egyptian women were kept off stage, silenced, muted, because they were unauthorised. In reality there were women who financially supported their families, raising their children alone, working and making a successful career instead of being in the shadow of a husband, seeking higher education and excelling in the sciences and arts, politically struggling to free their country from foreign domination or local oppression, etc. But, with all due respect to the few exceptions, human-psychological analysis and character building for females were rare. The clichés and stereotypes ruled across the decades, offering as well the archaic image of women who seduce, who betray, who destroy families, the medusas who dare to recognise their sexuality. Those negative types were not even built in an understandable psychological manner but rather predetermined to evil. The whole story was more or less predictable, and the final judgment was pre-decided even before a sin was committed.

In adaptations of Naguib Mahfouz’s The Beginning and the End Nefisa (played by Sanaa Gamil in the 1960 film) – who sacrifices the most for her family and for the education of her brothers, to the extent of selling her body – has to commit suicide. She has to disappear in order to have a normal life course. Although Nefisa does not naturally and immediately choose to die, she becomes obliged to due to her successful and selfish brother. Actually Nefisa does not commit suicide at all, she is indirectly killed by her brother. And everybody is happy to have the stain removed.

Now, in 2017, and in a country such as Egypt where women play a huge and muted leadership role on all levels, why are we holding onto this image of women as vulnerable, evil, naive, inferior and shameful? For how much longer can this society preserve and worship its culture of hypocrisy and double standards? Till when must we witness this ridiculous gap between reality and the images projected on stage?

As a wish for 2017, I want to see images of Egyptian women who are survivors, not victims, who are leaders, not followers, who are gorgeously beautiful without being stained. I want to see Egyptian female performers who lead the stage out of the ready-made boxes and stereotypes, and I want to witness performances created around the narratives of struggles and victories of Egyptian women. Far from any false images, and away from any fabrication and manipulation, I wish the Egyptian stage, a potential arena of freedom and liberation in my opinion, could make room for the revolt of women against the culture of oppression and shaming, and against its own artistic conventions and traditions of social and political hypocrisy.

Let the show begin!

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