A friend, a dancer I know, in Cairo once said that here you have to ‘be a man in the street’, describing the attitude with which she carries herself in order to move around this city. It stayed with me. First, the concept that men are more hardened, more able to aggressively assert their space and therefore tackle public transport; and second, that it was a necessary quality to live in Cairo. The sad fact is its true. Even if you are a tough woman, used to asserting her space, the attitudes of those around you permeate your awareness.
I had become aware that there was a dominant masculine energy in my workshop group. This was not coming from all the men, and was not dominating all the women, but the loudest voices in the room spoke assertively, and the accompanying bodies claimed their space with dominance rather than quiet ownership. I am aware of, and try to neutralise, my own preference for male energy- particularly in technique class- perhaps this is why I love teaching here so much? But I am acutely aware of the need for balance.
There have been, until recently, more professionally trained male dancers in Cairo than female. The recent graduates of Cairo Contemporary Dance Centre are redressing this balance – El Hamd’lleila- but within my workshop those with the most experience were mostly men. This is indicative of pervasive attitudes within families, girls are more protected and allowed less freedoms… but it’s also down to genuine dangers. It’s harder as a woman to move around the city, so fewer can access training (especially if it’s in a less accessible part of town as we are here.) Partly as a result of all this, men will dominate my final cast. In a group of 6 core performers we have only one woman. Luckily she is a powerhouse and I’m confident she will more than ‘bring it’. I feel that this is unbalance is acceptable due to its reflection of the reality of the culture. However, not wanting women’s stories over looked, I have taken steps to have guests in our midst whom I hope will redress the balance and bring some oestrogen into the room. There are two cameo roles in the performance for women who also bring a different cultural perspective… more on this once we start.
The latter part of our week was dominated by feminist discussion. I began our daily chat on Wednesday by saying, for now, I only want to hear from the women. I asked them how it was to be a woman in Cairo. The scene had been set for a conversation about street harassment by our previous focus on the invasive and yet supportive nature of people in the streets. The main themes that emerged were: body ownership, objectification, sexualisation, the need for self-defence, clothes, judgement…. Almost every feminist issue you know of from our UK society is intensified here. I found myself saying, ‘this is true back home, but not as bad’ quite regularly. The men stayed humbly quiet and listened, occasionally nodding in solidarity.
Our improv task for the session became a sort of empowerment exercise. I asked them to completely avoid touch/contact throughout. First, the men invaded the space of the women, then they switched. They each created an improvised structure in which women fought for their space and won.
Afterwards, I asked the men for their responses. None of them chose to describe how it felt to be invaded. They all had responses for the women’s stories. Most, wanted to explain why they thought it happened, what the root of the problem was, some had stories of groups or individuals trying to stop it happening, others were a little defensive. I tried to be clear with them that none of us saw them as harassers or as responsible. But that the more they could understand the women’s perspectives, the more chance they had to prevent it, to identify sexism when it happens in subtler forms, and to spread a more positive and equal message. These are some of the most receptive, sensitive and open-minded men in this country, but you have to start somewhere and reflection is never a bad thing. Precisely because they cannot imagine wanting to harass a woman, they also cannot imagine why any of their own actions might be sexist. Even I have my internalised misogyny to deal with. The session ran 30 minutes over.
One of the women later told me that her experience of invading the men’s space was interesting. She found that the polite and considerate men she was in a group with were incapable of making her feel invaded. However, she was frightened by her own response to doing the invading. She described all the harassment she had experienced over 20 years in Egypt pouring out of her. Words came to her lips- nasty things- without her realising and aggression came so easily. She said it was like it has been stored up inside her and it was finally coming out. She apologised sincerely to the men she had worked with.
I have been pondering why street harassment is so much worse here than in other places. For sure, the rights of women are not upheld by those in power… But that’s true in many, many other places. Also true is that there is a mismatch between peoples freedom of sexual expression, and sexualised/objectified images which are around (though thankfully these a fewer than at home…) However, I don’t believe that simply being sexually repressed leads to harassment. I don’t believe that sex crimes have anything whatsoever to do with sex. I think at its root it’s not about gender. Many men are harassed because of their appearance; many women harass other women because they’re not dressed a certain way. I think, in a city of 22 million people, we are simply fighting for space. Everyone is invading each other’s kinesphere. It’s a melting pot of religion, opinion, culture, history… and its constantly changing. People are just as much more inclined to smile, or start a conversation, or help you, as they are to invade, judge or bother you. Unfortunately for women the objectification and the religious viewpoint on their body (-please note I do not only mean Islam here, but religion in general-) has fused with the invasiveness. Add to this their physical vulnerability and it’s a nasty mix. However, it’s a dangerous trap that we fall into if, as westerners, we point the damning finger at Egypt. We have sexism; we have street harassment. OK, so it’s intensified here, so is everything about this city. It’s hot, it’s dusty, it’s huge class differences, it’s up all night, be best friends within seconds, have anything delivered, drive at 5 miles an hour in traffic or 70mph soon as you squeeze through the crowd, no lanes, street food, coffee, smells, shouts, noise and life. Their inequality is the same breed as ours; their objectification is the same breed as ours. Quite frankly, at least they’re honest about it.