Thursday, 18 November 2010

Splitting open the belly of the beast

Sooo ... weirdly, my throw-away post about 'Bad Names for Belly Dance Troupes' has been indexed on the site Xaxalaile along with much better and more thought-provoking writing on the subject of oriental dance. I particularly enjoyed this piece by Fatemah Fakhraie. I'm not linking to its original appearance on Muslimah Media Watch, because I think the comments over at are, on the whole, pretty interesting.

The bit of Fakhraie's piece that really made me straighten up in my seat was this:
"I take offense at the presentation of Middle Eastern “culture” through things like transparent veils, coin necklaces, and henna tattoos because reducing the Middle Eastern experience to some jingly coins and a scimitar takes the humanity right out of us. Elements of Middle Eastern/Muslim stereotypes are irreparably attached to the use of swords, snakes, and veils. These props serve to reinforce the idea of Muslim/Middle Eastern women as dangerous, sexually arousing, sexually submissive, and just plain different from women in the West."
Woah. Fakhraie explicitly states that she has no problems with Westerners belly dancing but I still couldn't help feeling guilty - after all, I dance with a scimitar and a veil. I own more jingly coin belts than I care to count. I don't own a snake, but I'm working out a piece of choreography set to an old sailor's shanty about a mermaid: and the green and black veil is kind of essential to it because I'm using it to represent the sea itself. Feel free to heap scorn on my lack of purist principles in the comments section.

That's my point really. I'm NOT a purist. I have no more attachment to, or understanding of, Middle Eastern cultures than your average member of the Somerset Anglicans Scone Making and English Speaking Society*. I don't pretend to in my daily life and I don't pretend to when I'm dancing. I'm not representing anyone but myself. But I do find the dance challenging, and fun, and it was a great way to get myself into a new group of people when I moved to the other side of the world. That Fakhraie, and people who share her views, could see me as some kind of clumsy cultural interloper is mortifying. I'm just dancing for crying out loud.

Which is why I'm not going to post about the treatment of women in the Middle East again, and haven't done for a while. Fakhraie was right, up to a point: I was on the verge of creating a blog that presented Middle Eastern women as "just plain different from women in the West", when all I wanted to do was acknowledge that I'm able to perform a dance that, ironically, is in danger of no longer being performed in the countries where it originated. I don't believe that Middle Eastern women are "different", any more than I believe that men in the west have anything to teach Middle Eastern men about the treatment of women. Check out British "actor" Danny Dyer and his advice in the UK's Zoo magazine to a heartbroken young man: "...cut your ex's face, and then no one will want her."

The truth is that gender equality is still a long way off, no matter where you live or what your ethnic background is. The truth is that we are all different, but that's to do with being human. There are plenty of people fighting the good fight for human rights, more intelligently and from a more informed point of view than I can hope to. I'm going to do my bit by not putting up with that sort of bullshit in my daily life and minimising the amount of bullshit I post online.

However, if Fakhraie doesn't want me to dance with scimitars and veils because she thinks I'm stereotyping her, I think that's just outrageous. Of course I'm not stereotyping anyone. And of course I want to be able to do this: 
*Society does not actually exist.

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