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Belly Dancing Double-Standard


Cairo, Egypt

Lara Calloway

Gallivanting around Cairo, Egypt for a few days, I was especially concerned about the way I was dressed. I’d been warned that in the predominantly Muslim country, bared shoulders, bellies, legs, or even hair would not only reflect poorly on my moral character, but attract all sorts of unwanted attention, specifically from the males. Watching women covered-head-to-toe in black burkas and myself donning baggy long-sleeves shirts, loose pants, and a head scarf, I was still constantly paranoid about offending someone.

Imagine my surprise upon walking into a belly-dancing 'ahwa my last night in Cairo. I’d certainly heard about them, and I’ve certainly seen much more scandalous things in nightclubs in my own country, but after fretting about modesty the past few days, I was totally unprepared. The girl on the center stage was dressed in what was essentially a black bikini, covered by a sheer skirt, slit on both sides all the way to the waistband. She wore high heels and copious amounts of makeup, and her dance accentuated every exposed part of her body. Of course, I expected this, there’s nothing underground about this secret-seeming phenomenon. Every travel book, literature, and exposition I’ve ever read on Cairene nightlife culture mentions belly dancing. But knowing how seemingly unacceptable this kind of spectacle would be right outside of the 'ahwa’s closed doors was almost unsettling. Comparable to a seedy strip joint back home on South Beach, I couldn’t help but have so many questions about this practice.

The waitresses, though not dressed quite as scantily as the dancers, were dressed in a manner inappropriate to wear outdoors, in spaghetti-string tank tops and tight-fitting jeans, and they unenthusiastically danced for the men whose tables they tended. Several times I’d turn around and watch the door, as if I was nervous the morality police were going to bust in and arrest everyone. I couldn’t help but wonder where these women go when the night is done, and what they wear while they walk home. What do their friends and family think, if they even know, and what are they like when they’re not dancing? In Tiantian Zheng’s article Consumption, Body Image, and Rural Apartheid in Contemporary China, he talks about how the rural migrant bar hostesses are very wary of their own security and cautious of releasing their identity and background information. I wonder if these Egyptian women are equally as protective, or if they need to be.  Is the standard really as strict as I’d been treating it all week long, and if so, where does this whole underground, but-not-so-underground, trend fit in?

covering up

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