Recently, Egyptian media has started to spotlight women’s rights. For instance, the TV series, Faten Amal Harby, has gained huge popularity and wide support since it became available to stream during Ramadan 2022; for it highlighted the legal and social sufferings of divorced women in Egypt.
In fact, Egyptian female artists have always been an important tool for cultural change. Yet, they went through a long journey to gain a respectable status in Egyptian society; especially during the period from 1919 to 1952, which was a period of political and social changes in Egypt.
The 19th century witnessed the emergence of a feminist movement led by Egyptian Female Entertainers, such as Tahia Carioca and Umm Kulthum. This movement is considered “silent”, yet “practical”; where female entertainers never used the press or feminist unions to convey their voices. However, despite being publicly criticized, they pursued their careers; challenging patriarchal socio-cultural perceptions; inspiring other women to have full autonomy over their bodies and lives.
In the Arab and Muslim world, it was socially and religiously believed that “Men are women’s guardians”, which deprived women of any political, economic, or social rights. Yet, in Egypt, with Mohammed Ali’s modernization projects in the early 1800s, along with Mohammed Abdu’s and Qassim Amin’s efforts to re-interpret Islam and change social norms, women were only granted education rights.
Yet, these reforms were not inclusive to all classes of women; especially the poor, which forced several women to start working, and the only choice, for many, was to use their artistic talents; due to the lack of education and work opportunities in other fields for women.
Female entertainers were morally and religiously rejected by society for abandoning their seclusion which was linked to women’s respectability. Yet, they were challenging patriarchy for their own survival, without being aware of what feminism is; unconsciously paving the route for a feminist-cultural movement.
As Barbara Sellers-Young argues, sexual freedom and full self-control over one’s body are facets of feminism, which justifies the fight for respect for female artists as part of the Egyptian feminist movement; reflecting inequality among women. That is why it was a silent double-battle feminist-cultural movement, against both: patriarchy, as other feminists, and their low status among women.
In challenging the negative social accusations, female artists adopted self-representation strategies; defending their dignity as human beings, and their rights as Egyptian women. In doing so, they identified themselves with their professions as artists/performers, instead of “feminist activists”.
Also, during the inter-war period (the 1920s-1940s), the existence of unveiled female performers in public, without family approval or supervision, became the norm. In doing so, their feminist-cultural movement took place on state and societal levels.
On the state level, female performers succeeded in proving their importance in political life. During the 1919 and 1952 revolutions, female performers such as Badiaa Masabni, Tahia carioca, and Munira Al-Mahdia turned their homes and salons/casinos into meeting places for revolutionary leaders, political activists, and the free officers. For instance, based on Sadat’s memories, Hekmat Fahmi (a belly dancer) helped the free officers, who used to meet in her boathouse, to sweep out the British Occupation from Egypt by exploiting her relations with some British soldiers; spying on the British strategy to defeat Germany during WWII, upon crossing the Egyptian borders.
Some performers were political activists too. Tahia Carioca was vocal about her negative views on King Farouk’s governance, and later on Nasser’s policies. She was imprisoned several times during Farouk’s reign.
On the societal level, female performers were running their own businesses; controlling their theatres, without male consultancy or interference. Also, Umm Kulthum and Munira Al-Mahdia used to negotiate their contracts without intermediaries and were in charge of setting their concert schedules and deciding on the payment amounts they deserved.
In addition, at the time when feminist activists were unable to hold managerial positions in state-sponsored institutions, Umm Kulthum, in 1940, became the chairman of the “Listening committee” of the Egyptian Radio, and had a great influence on selecting which songs would be played on the Radio. She was also elected the president of the male-dominant Artists’ syndicate, in 1945. She was even insisting on getting equal payment as male singers, such as Abdul-Wahab, for Radio concerts; thus, equal payment from a state-sponsored institution, which other feminists failed in achieving.
Over time, female artists gained social acceptance and some even gained wide respect and admiration from the public. Thus, they were able to transgress sociocultural boundaries and established their positions in society.
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