• Zosia Jo

On (Un)Covered, feminism and cultural appropriation

Today I came under fire as a result of publicity for (Un)Covered for cultural appropriation. I am not surprised, nor do I dismiss this persons opinion. She was right to speak out and intersectionality is at the heart of all powerful feminist change. I was not initially intending to cover my hair during this work for precisely this reason, nor will I be presenting the entire work veiled. However, the topic inevitably led me to exploring it and, were I to keep the topic of veiling totally out of the piece, I would be ignoring an enormous group of women for whom what they wear and power is inherently controversial and important. (By the way, I am exploring other masks and head coverings as well.) So, I have resolved to take a more sensitive approach with marketing and make sure that the piece gives a platform for Arab women’s voices, without labelling them as my own. An intention I had from the beginning, that has obviously not been made clear enough. I start workshops in Cairo tomorrow because of my awareness of the need for in depth research amongst women from this culture that is not my own.

I want to be clear that this work is intended to unify women, to create a platform where we can all share our experiences of the violent control placed on our bodies by patriarchal constructs, be that in the form of forced veiling, forced unveiling or sexualisation and objectification of our bodies. It is intended to be a platform for women from all cultural backgrounds. If budget would allow, it would be performed by 50 different women*. However, in the current economic situation for the arts, and given my own limitations, it is more practical that it be a solo with opportunities through sound and film to lend the stage to other women’s voices. I also see it as far more vital to raise this conversation as widely as possible, and expose as many audiences as possible to its political message, (promotion of choice and women’s autonomy) than to make a one - off albeit it comfortably people pleasing performance. I want to highlight our similarities, not separate Arab women’s fight for empowerment from British ones. There is no way I could raise resources to tour this if I used more than one dancer and as it stands I don’t even have the money to pay an Arab dancer to perform with me. Should I badly use someone in the name of political correctness or should I seek to present women’s experiences in their own way through the film and voice recordings that I intended?

I am however collaborating with an entirely Egyptian group of artists. The choreography is being made in collaboration with Aly Khamees and Sherin Hegazy, with Sherin also making the costume, the music will be by Mohamed Shafik, and lights by Saber Elsayed.

I am well aware of the painful history my own country has with the Middle East and beyond, and of the implications of presenting myself as some kind of saviour. That’s why I do not intend to do so. However, I also can not stand by and watch while a culture to which my partner and many close friends belong is demonised and another generation of women in both cultures watch their pain and suffering be perpetuated. We have to stand up and be counted. We have to make our voices heard. All of them.

I am also well aware of my privilege. I am lucky enough to have been brought up being told to have a loud voice and an opinion, and to have grown up with access to education and creative development. So, should I be ashamed of that? Or should I attempt to share what I have with others? I have dedicated my entire career to offering arts experiences to people for whom access is limited, including rural communities and lately in Egypt. There is a great deal of fantastic training and initiatives here in Cairo that deserve due respect. Having said that, it is evident in the huge take up of my upcoming workshops that women’s only sessions (respectful of the fact that veiled women are not able, or choose not to, dance in front of men) is a neglected area. This does not make me a saviour, it makes me an artist looking for a way to work that benefits others. I do not deny my privilege, nor do I see it as a reason to stick to safe white middle class audiences and participants for whom my work is swimming in a sea of other arty farty offerings.

I hope that if this work- or the idea or appearance of this work- offends you, you will at least come to the show and consider another perspective before you judge. And if you think we in the west do not struggle with patriarchal ownership over our bodies, think again. If you think all veiled women are oppressed, think again. If you think I am out to somehow prove my superiority, ask someone who knows me well, or one of the women who’s been more intimately involved in this project.

Anyone who thinks I should put up and shut up… sorry I will not be silenced. It would be far too convenient to the patriarchy.

*NOTE added after publication: The work WAS later performed by 26 women at Falaki Theatre Cairo seen here in the image.

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