Thursday, November 04, 2010

What does the path to equality look like?

I went back to belly dancing tonight after all my tedious illness, and among the shimmying and chasseing and belly popping, we watched some YouTube clips of Turkish belly dancers and compared them with Egyptian dancers. There is a huge difference. If you're not familiar with belly dancing, you may not be aware that it is a family of dance rather than a single style, and the variations can be quite dramatic. I've always leaned towards the very traditional Egyptian or the more modern folkloric style - both very earthy and strong. There are also much more flamboyant styles, sexier styles, cabaret styles, balletic styles and so on. My bias has meant that I've watched a lot of Egyptian dancers and not so many others.

Here's Didem, a favourite dancer in Turkey now.

And here's Dina, Egypt's darling at the moment.
Something struck me, watching them. These two are reasonably representative of their countries' styles. Didem is young, very thin, and is contracted exclusively to the TV show she's on in this clip. Her predecessor on the show was apparently shot in the leg when she tried to leave her contract (this has all the researched authority of my belly dance teacher, but even the fact that such a rumour is believed by people says something). Dina is older, and looks very thoroughly in control at all times. She makes no grand entrances, just wanders on to stage and starts dancing when she feels like it. Dina commands respect while Didem commands attention.

And my point was? Egypt is a country where social roles remain quite rigid, both in terms of gender and class. However, the dancers from Egypt are respected for their talent, are regarded as improving with age and are not noticeably objectified. These women, at least the successful ones, are self confident, and seem to own the stage.

Turkey is, by comparison, much more Westernised, and with that, it seems the dancers are much more objectified. There is more freedom for woman to step outside gender and class roles, but at least through the lens of belly dance, they have more obligation to meet beauty standards and play passive sex kitten.

There is more than one path to equality. Rigid gender roles don't necessarily mean an imbalance in respect, although they might. In cultures where women are respected, (like Egyptian dancers) I can understand why they may not want to give that up to come to the place I, as a Westerner am at, where youth, slenderness and big boobs are the main measure of a woman, even if I can choose more ways to live my life. I don't know what the path from such a culture to equality looks like, because I don't live it, but I know they have no obligation to follow a Western lead.

If I was a dancer, I know I'd rather be an Egyptian one than a Turkish one. However, I'm not a dancer and I've worked all my life in male dominated areas, so Turkey may be a better choice for me. And that, finally, is my point. Any interim point along the way will be better for some and worse for others. There's nothing to be gained by judging the other path while standing in the middle of one's own.


  1. Brilliant post, Ariane. I especially love this:

    There's nothing to be gained by judging the other path while standing in the middle of one's own.

  2. I'm more into the arm and hand dancing and upper body isolations more common in Turkish style, so am coming from a different perspective to you. (Goodness, didn't Didem looked bored for most of her performance! Much preferred Dina's audience interactiona nd smiles)

    I think your conclusion is a really neat summarisation of my thoughts on Western feminists who rant against Muslim countries and modesty tenets in regards to clothing. I struggle to expand it inside my own head, to apply to more situations, but I think I'm slowly getting there. :)

  3. @Deborah: Thank you. :)

    @Aphie: I'm not actually all that fond of Dina's dancing, but she certainly embodies that engaged, self assured style.

    I've always been uncomfortable listening to Western feminists tell other women how to do it. I tend to think the end game is pretty similar regardless of culture - equality of respect, equality of opportunity in life, equality of safety and well-being and so on - but since no-one really has that yet, which aspects are achieved in part or in full first seems to be pretty arbitrary.

  4. Wonderful Post. I too am a belly dancer! I find it a very feminist, woman-friendly space.

    However, back to your post - 'There is more then one path to equality". Lovely, and I love how you've used the dancers to illustrate your point. A wonderful way to get it across. Whilst it's hard to see feminism from another culture's perspective, it is rude to not attempt to do so. Thanks for the thougts and the videos as well.

  5. Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it! And I agree, belly dancing is very much like that - even with the male teacher we had last night! :)