Breaking Gender Boundaries in the Middle East: It takes Balls, Brains, & Bravery

The past month in the US has proven big in gender and LGBT issues – Bruce Jenner’s transgender interview changed the way America sees trans individuals, the supreme court makes a decision on proposition 8 regarding same sex marriage, and the nation faces the potential of its first woman president with Hillary’s bid to run.  And though there are still major strides to be made, America seems to be accepting change at an increasingly accelerated pace.

What do changes in social gender norms mean in nations outside of American boundaries?  Change is in the air in the post-Arab Spring Middle East as well.

As parts of the MENA region face increasing oppression under fierce dictators and the rule of terror groups like ISIS – there are young people in areas outside of terror control that are breaking the gender boundaries such Islamist groups seek to maintain.

During the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, women were pivotal in leading the cause to advance their rights and place in Egyptian society.  But even as laws change in a few short years, social fabric can often take a generation.  In Egypt, women have been taking this into their own hands. Recently, Egypt awarded a mother, Sisa Abu Daooh, who dressed like a man for more than 40 years in order to provide for her family.  Illiterate and widowed, she was forced to find work to support her children – being a woman in Egypt can be dangerous, being a woman in the work force equally so, but she courageously worked to do so – albeit dressed like a man.

However, there are women of a younger generation that are trying to break traditional work barriers without the gender-bending cloak and veil.  Mennatullah El-Husseiny sought to break taboos of women’s place in the public social fabric of Egypt by doing jobs considered to be “only for men.”

Turkish male belly-dancer (zenne) performing. Photo Credit: Al Monitor

Turkish male belly-dancer (zenne) performing.
Photo Credit: Al Monitor

Women are not the only ones who are trying to crack the glass ceiling they face in the Middle East – in Turkey, young men are brining back an age-old art – the Ottoman tradition of male belly dancing.

Known in Turkish as zennes, rakkas, or koceks, the art died out during the Ataturk era and has only recently resurfaced, but in the current political atmosphere is considered part of a homosexual culture in Turkey – a sentiment that while still considered taboo in many parts of Turkey, is becoming more accepted in its modern and increasingly globalizing society.  And although the zenne scene in Turkey is becoming more accepted, one of the male dancers interviewed in an al-Monitor last December still declines to have his name and photo revealed – cracking the glass ceiling can still come with a price…

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