Yasmina Ramzy — Lifting the Veil

The veil, the milaya, the seven veils, the hijab; all subjects of some controversy. For a Bellydancer performing in Islamic countries, the veil can mean many things.

There are is a wide variety of images conveying the oppressed Middle Eastern woman veiled and downtrodden that stir sympathy in the Western woman. The mysterious and exotic veiled Arab woman often stirs desire in men, but for both men and women, it holds some kind of fascination.

I had never really given the veil much consideration. It was just part of Middle Eastern culture and sometimes part of my performance. It became an object of my curiosity one day when traveling from Damascus to dance at a wedding in London. While washing my hands in the ladies room at Heathrow airport, I was at the sink beside a completely veiled young woman who had just come off the same flight. In order to wash her face, she partially unveiled to reveal blonde hair and blue eyes and then spoke in a British accent.

As shy as I am, I could not contain my curiosity and had to inquire. I excused myself first and then asked her “why on earth would someone obviously not of Middle Eastern heritage actually choose to wear the veil?” She smiled knowingly and gave me an answer that still keeps me thinking today.

She said that being brought up in a Western so-called “free” society, she was torn in a battle of what she claimed was too much choice; a variety of careers, motherhood, marriage, single life, etc. She seemed to feel that no matter which choices she made, they were always wrong. If she chose a career, she was deemed heartless. If she chose motherhood, she was stupid and boring. If she was a virgin, she was frigid and if she was sexually active, she was a whore. If she chose all, she was really in a bad state. She said she found herself trying to be everything and nothing to so many in her so-called free society. It was a no-win situation. She said that maybe she was free to choose, but nonetheless, none of the choices gave her fulfillment and self-worth.

Self-worth, she said, is exactly why she chose to marry into the Islamic world. This freckled faced girl was an Islamic married woman with children and felt this position in her new chosen society held value and high esteem. The choice was a narrow one but one that was fulfilling because she knew who she was and had self-worth. She seemed a very happy person and her lively smile and healthy, rosy cheeks certainly did not convey a downtrodden soul. In fact, it seemed as if she pitied me lost in my world of choice.

Part of me thought "what a cop out" and part of me could not deny the truth in some of her words. Still, in the eighties, self-esteem was not a key issue for women and giving up one's freedom for self-worth hardly seemed a fair trade. It is now many years later and self-esteem is a huge issue for everyone. At the same time, Bellydancing has become mainstream. Where only 15 years ago, there were a handful of people making a living out of teaching Bellydance in the world, now it is the full-time career of many in cities and small towns all over the globe.

I have had the honour of teaching countless women the art of Bellydance and most will comment on how the act of performing or learning this dance has raised their self-esteem. Yes, now there are the Shakira wannabees, the exposed midriff is fashionable and Amr Diab can be heard in Italian restaurants. Bellydancing, Arabic music and Bellydance accessories such as the coined hip scarf are becoming part of our Western culture. Some people are actually learning Bellydance as a career choice because of the high demand for teachers. These teachers will tell you, they enjoy their job so much because of how they are able to affect their student's self-esteem as well as their comfort in their bodies and their sexuality.

This by-product of a healthy body image that comes from practising Bellydancing has also leant itself to one of today's hot women's issues. Judging by the questions I am often asked in media interviews and by some bold students, there seems to be a belief that Bellydancing may improve one's sex life as well. When a student is biting her lip trying to perfect the vertical hip drop technique then turns to ask me when will this start making her feel sexy, my mind wanders to the living rooms of Jordan, where after dinner, I would party with women ages 2 to 102.

Separated from the men who were in another room playing Tawleh (Backgammon) and smoking Shisha, we women were raucously dancing up a storm. Shape, size, age and technical ability had no relevance in this room. I would watch in awe as the 5-year old, the great grandma, the gorgeous blooming teenager and the radiant pregnant mother all danced in the same manner, blurring the differences between them. They all had a sweet but knowing smile, looked down at their hip and chest movements admiring their own body and then held their chins high proud to be a woman. Each embodied confidence, becoming a queen in her own right as she danced. This confidence had nothing to do with fleeting, superficial beauty. The only thing I could find that these women based their pride on, was the fact that they were the proud owners of a miraculous woman's body, a body that could make men emotionally pliable, produce other human beings and feed and nurture those new human beings.

These women had never taken a Bellydance lesson. There aren't Bellydance schools in the Middle East. I guess each girl learned by watching her mother, sister, aunt or maybe the Egyptian movie stars. I often ask myself, why does feminine and sensual expression seem so foreign to Western women? Why are striptease classes becoming the in thing? Shouldn't feminine expression and pride in the female body come naturally or at least be inherited from one's mother or other women in a girl's life? Why do Western women need classes in such things?

My own mother was a devout feminist in the late sixties and early seventies, burning her bra at women's rights marches. She taught me that I do not need to rely on a man for my security and happiness. I could do it all on my own by working at a good career. Having a career and a vocation outside of motherhood and marriage was what would make me a fulfilled woman. Of course, when I chose Bellydance as my career, my mother began to wonder where she had gone wrong. Exploiting the female body in a culture with little regard for women's rights and freedoms was not the career she had in mind. Nonetheless, I have come to realize that a healthy self-image based on something personally inherent may be a very important ingredient to happiness. Relying on the business world's stamp of approval for your self-esteem and fulfilment is fleeting and relative.

So are these veiled, subservient women happy and fulfilled or are they downtrodden and suffering from oppression? Ask them, and they will tell you they wear the veil out of choice. It is a symbol of modesty. They feel proud that their body has such a powerful effect; it needs to be covered up to keep the peace. Arab men will tell you they treat their women like precious princesses and that it is their duty to take care of them. There is always some seemingly logical answer for why a woman needs her husband's permission to travel or why she must be a virgin when getting married. From my point of view, I see them conditioned by their own mothers or by propaganda in the guise of religion.

Likewise, the young girl/woman of the West is proud to have the choice to be anything she wants, is free to flaunt her body how she wants and can choose to have sex with whom she wants whether married or not. Western men will say they are attracted to strong, independent women who know what they want and are sexually demonstrative. Yet, the conversations I have overheard in washrooms between teenage girls blatantly display a complete lack of respect for themselves and their bodies. Their self-worth is based on the needs of the teenage boys. In all this freedom, some women rarely experience orgasm and then there is the more mature woman whose husband has left her unceremoniously for a woman half her age. After a while, I begin to feel the "independent female" sales pitch is just that, a sales pitch.

In hotel elevators in the Middle East, I would often find myself crammed in with a group of Kuwaiti or Saudi women. These women were completely veiled with black gloves and even their eyes were veiled so walking without help was difficult. As soon as the elevator doors closed, with no men in sight, the typical giggling began at the sight of a dusty, unveiled blonde girl with her ripped jeans and un-brushed hair. Then, bang, the big heavy black dresses were lifted and I was invited to feast my eyes on the wildest, most revealing fashions straight off the Paris runways; leather hotpants, deep cut necklines revealing cleavage and lacy underwear. No words spoken, not that I would have understood anyway, just lots of giggling.

Back in my teenage years devoted to mysticism, I was taught the significance of the Dance of the Seven Veils. I learned that the veils were a symbol of ignorance or a barrier to truth, self-knowledge and enlightenment. I think, whether East or West, we are all ill-informed and living in ignorance. There are many veils to be lifted in both cultures. In fact, I think one of the most revealing veils to be lifted could be the one dividing the Arab "world" and the North American "way of life".