|Sherin Hegaz photo by Johny Smith|
Women You Should Know:
By Zosia Jo
Amidst the hustle and heat of Cairo life, a surprising artistic ecology is thriving. The independent contemporary dance and theatre scene in Egypt is unlike any I have encountered before. Forget what you thought you knew about this country, and imagine a passionate, earnest, and unexpectedly gender-equal community. Women and men in this city are creating powerful work against a backdrop of traffic, street harassment, and economic disparity. Out of diversity grows great art, and Cairo is certainly one of the most diverse places I have known.
As a female choreographer and guest here I have yet to encounter sexism within the arts sector, a statement I could sadly not make of my time working in the UK. Female artists are not as outnumbered or underpowered as recent discussions have highlighted they are in ours.
One such remarkable artist is Sherin Hegazy. She agrees it is fairly equal between women and men within the dance scene, despite considerable gender issues in the wider community, and cites attitudes to gender as the surprising cause:
“We have a problem with the cultural view of dancing. For women it’s hard [to be a dancer] and she has to fight - starting with her family. But for boys it’s the same because it’s seen as weak. Men and women fight equally.”
I first met Sherin in 2014 through friends with whom she trained in the Cairo Contemporary Dance Workshop Program. Last December I first saw her work. Sherin was one of Studio Emad Eddin’s chosen artists for their 2B Continued Festival. For Sherin, it was a chance to present a work she had already begun researching months before. After touring with Nada Sabet in a performance aimed at generating discussions about female genital mutilation in rural Egypt, Hegazy was inspired to look deeper into the experiences of women in her culture.
For her recent piece Ya Sem, she decided to focus on an issue she, and most other women here, encounter on a daily basis - street harassment. Sherin asked fifty women from all over Egypt, and from various walks of life, two questions:
- If someone bothers you on the street what is your reaction?
- If it happened a lot over the years, did you change anything in yourself in order to deal with it?
Sherin describes changing her own clothing choices in order to stay safe, covering her arms and décolletage, even when she feels it ruins the look of her dress. She also believes many girls dress more like men, in jeans or sports clothes, in order to send a message:
“She is tough, she has no time to be beautiful; don’t attack me because we are the same.”
It was for this reason Sherin chose deliberately feminine costumes for the piece, red with flowing fabric and a flattering cut, but purposefully modest and not too revealing. She wanted to show women being beautiful and powerful at the same time.
“Since I started dancing, I dreamed of making a piece about our culture.”
Ya Sem does exactly this, in the sense that it uses Baladi Dance (known commonly as Belly Dance and a traditional dance embedded in Egyptian culture) in a contemporary way. Three dancers, Ameny Atef, Nagham Saleh and Hegazy herself, share the stage with Sabrine El-Hossamy who plays the traditional Egyptian drum - Darbuka, which is unusual for a woman. The piece begins with what appears to be a normal Baladi movement sequence, their faces are smiling and the mood is fun. However, the immediately comfortable audience are later confronted with powerful, unapologetic women, dancing with sticks the way men do (Tahtib), using their voices and bodies to tell the stories of those 50 women and make a clear statement- : ‘we are being harassed but we are powerful and we are fighting.’ Their performances are unified despite their diverse characteristics, ; their facial expressions change many times during the piece but their eyes never lose focus on the audience. They are telling us something important, and they won’t go quietly.
Baladi dance is a poignant medium for this work. Most Egyptians, even many men, have some experience of dancing in this style; it is the prominent social dance and even the name, Baladi, means country or local. Back in the 1950s and 60s it was enjoyed and respected. It is only in recent years that it gained a reputation as sexual or shameful. Sherin cites the wave of more extreme views on Islam coming into the country with returning migrant workers in the 1970s and 80s. During this time, many Egyptians travelled to Saudi Arabia to work and returned with different practices. Before this time the Hijab (veil) and Niqab (full black veil with face covering) were very rare in Egypt, but are now much more common.
Whilst researching the origins of Baladi dance, Hegazy also discovered something that makes her choice of movement vocabulary even more appropriate.
“In Upper Egypt girls are so shy. When a girl was forced to dance at a wedding or something she would make a movement to say NO… (Sherin moves her hip and stamps one foot) … This developed into movements with the waist, belly, butt… and it became Belly Dance.”
The response to Ya Sem was hugely positive, it won the audience vote in every category. However, sSome people told Sherin she was too direct, her meaning too clear. But it was vital that her message got across, not just to an intellectual, artistic audience, but to everyone.
“It was my goal to make something people could understand and enjoy. Something from our culture, and not just for entertainment, but to make people think.”
Perhaps the most surprising response came from a female programmer who asked her why the piece didn’t show women’s suffering.
“I was avoiding putting women suffering. I didn’t want to show this. I wanted to show women fighting.”
So often in contemporary dance we see images of angst and suffering. We make the ugly beautiful; we combine grace and skill to express truth. When you apply this to the issue of bodies, street harassment and feminism, there is a huge risk. We risk fetishizing the act of sexual oppression. I don’t need to see more images of women being raped, oppressed, silenced, and desperate. Let’s see powerful females centre stage saying ‘NO. This is not OK.’ Sherin could’ve ended up putting a pretty pink ribbon around a very dark message. Thank fully she did the opposite. She showed us the solution.
Working as a performer, choreographer and facilitator, Zosia Jo has built a portfolio career specialising in multidisciplinary performance work including dance, spoken word and theatre. In 2010 she ran TufPoets, a monthly open mic poetry evening at the Literary cafe in Tufnell Park, London.
As a choreographer, Zosia enjoys an international career including several works made in Cairo Egypt, and performances across the UK. Her solo performance work, Herstory, combines dance and spoken word and found critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2015. Zosia writes a blog on her own website zosiajo.com which is mainly focused on her choreographic process but also includes refelctions on dance in general.
Editor's Note: You can find additional posts in the Women You Should Know series in the blog archives from March 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. If you are interested in being a guest blogger on the Zestyverse, let us know!