KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Egypt's Morality Crackdown Targets Female Dancers

Sep 30, 2015
Originally published on December 22, 2015 9:16 am

In an online video, Suha Mohamed Ali — known as Egypt's Shakira — is dressed in a schoolgirl uniform and shaking her hips. She dips low and sings and dances suggestively with vegetables. "If you want hot pepper," she sings, "I'll buy it ground."

In another video, Dalia Kamal Youssef, known as Pardis, dances with a squeegee. She's wearing gaudy, revealing outfits as she sings about wanting a man.

The videos are definitely tacky; some would say tasteless. In Egypt, they're also criminal. Both women were recently sentenced to six months in jail for inciting debauchery.

Their sentences aren't unique. Human rights researchers say Egypt's morality police have been working in overdrive for the past two years. Hundreds of gay and transgender people had been targeted and arrested by the state before the campaign recently widened to include dancers, accused of inciting debauchery or prostitution.

The morality crackdown has come after the ouster in 2013 of an Islamist government by a military-backed state. "It is a battle of who is the representative of real Islam," said Dalia Abd El-Hameed, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights group.

Abd El-Hameed says she's tracked more than 200 cases of people accused of being gay and arrested for debauchery or similar charges by morality police since 2013. She says it's a disturbing pattern. Police "would target gays and transgender people in some cases, and then after that, they would turn to dancers and dancers-slash-prostitutes," she says. "They would always, whether they are dancers, whether they are trans or gays, they would always be accused of prostitution or debauchery, you know."

Shakira and Pardis aren't the only women whose dance moves have recently landed them in jail. Another dancer was imprisoned for performing in an outfit made from the Egyptian flag. Yet another was jailed for the low-cut, short dresses she wore as she shimmied and sang about male gropers.

The surprising part of this is that the uptick in morality cases started after the ouster of Egypt's first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood. He was accused of trying to take the state backward and of supporting extremism, and is now on death row in an Egyptian prison.

Abd El Hameed says the military-backed government of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is trying to prove it is the real guardian of morality and Islam — not the ousted Islamists in the Brotherhood or extremists in militant groups like ISIS.

"What we discovered is that this is a continuous attempt to create moral panic," she says.

The state is using all its weapons to push the agenda. The religious affairs ministry issues statements saying Egypt won't accept perversion and that morality will be protected. State-aligned media are hyping coverage of sex scandals and so-called morality cases.

And recently, the Egyptian musicians syndicate implemented a dress code for female singers, banning "revealing clothing."

Khaled Bayoumi, a singer and member of the union, says the syndicate is just implementing longstanding rules. He says the rules are there to "protect" artists, citing an example of a Lebanese singer who was harassed at a concert in Egypt because of her skimpy outfit.

"Egypt is the Hollywood of the Middle East," he says. "It is the center of music and film. And it's the syndicate's responsibility to protect it from being cheapened. "

Then he breaks into song. His music, he says, is an example of that classic Egyptian art.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The morality police in Egypt have shifted into overdrive. Human rights activists say the police have arrested hundreds of gay and transgender people. It's all part of a crackdown that began after a military-backed coup ousted the elected Islamist government. As NPR's Leila Fadel reports, now the police are targeting belly dancers.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SUHA MOHAMMED ALI: (Singing in foreign language).

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: In this video, belly dancer Suha Mohammed Ali, known as Egypt's Shakira, is dressed in schoolgirl uniform and is shaking her hips. She dips low and sings about vegetables suggestively.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

DALIA KAMAL YOUSSEF: (Singing in foreign language).

FADEL: In this video, Dalia Kamal Youssef, known as Pardis, dances with a squeegee. She's wearing gaudy, revealing outfits as she sings about wanting a man. The videos are definitely tacky. Some would say tasteless, but apparently in Egypt they're also criminal. Both women were recently sentenced to six months in jail for inciting debauchery. And Shakira and Pardis aren't the only ones whose dance moves landed them in jail. Another dancer was imprisoned for performing in an outfit made out of the Egyptian flag, and yet another was jailed for the low-cut, short dresses she wore as she shimmied and sang about male gropers.

It's a disturbing pattern, says Dalia Abdel Maguid, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. It started, she says, with police going after the gay and transgender community.

DALIA ABDEL MAGUID: They would target gays and trans in some cases, and after then they would turn to dancers and dancers/prostitutes, and they would always, always - whether they are dancers, whether they are trans or gays, they would always be accused by prostitution, debauchery, you know?

FADEL: She's tracked over 200 cases of people accused of being gay and arrested for debauchery or similar charges by morality police since 2013. Now the campaign has widened to include dancers accused of inciting debauchery or prostitution. The surprising part of all of this is that the uptick in morality cases started after the ouster of Egypt's first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi. He was an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood. He was accused of trying to take the state backwards and of supporting extremism. He's now on death row in an Egyptian prison. Abdel Maguid says the military-backed government is trying to prove it's the real guardian of morality and Islam, not the ousted Islamist and the Brotherhood or the extremists of militant groups like ISIS.

FADEL: She's tracked over 200 cases of people accused of being gay and arrested for debauchery or similar charges by morality police since 2013. Now the campaign has widened to include dancers accused of inciting debauchery or prostitution. The surprising part of all of this is that the uptick in morality cases started after the ouster of Egypt's first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi. He was an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood. He was accused of trying to take the state backwards and of supporting extremism. He's now on death row in an Egyptian prison. Abdel Maguid says the military-backed government is trying to prove it's the real guardian of morality and Islam, not the ousted Islamist and the Brotherhood or the extremists of militant groups like ISIS.

DALIA ABDEL MAGUID: It is a battle of who is the representative of real Islam.

FADEL: And she says the state is using all its weapons to push the agenda. The Ministry of Religious Endowments issues statements saying Egypt won't accept perversion and that morality will be protected. State-aligned media are hyping up coverage of sex scandals and so called morality cases. Recently, the music syndicate implemented a dress code for female singers. Khaled Bayoumi, a singer and member of the union, says the syndicate is just implementing long-standing rules.

KHALED BAYOUMI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: He says the rules are to protect artists, citing the example of a Lebanese singer who was harassed at a concert in Egypt. He says it's because of her skimpy outfit.

BAYOUMI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Egypt is the Hollywood of the Middle East, he says. It's the center of music and film, and it's the syndicate's responsibility to protect it from being cheapened.

BAYOUMI: (Singing in foreign language).

FADEL: Then he breaks into song. His music, he says, is an example of that classic Egyptian sound. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.