Beyoncé: saint or sinner?

By Khaled Diab

As the singer prepares to visit , Christian and Muslim fundamentalists agree: Beyoncé is the root of all evil.

4 November 2009

Is the 'Booty-shaking believer' a saint or a sinner?
Is the 'Booty-shaking believer' a saint or a sinner?

You can imagine my surprise when I learned that Beyoncé was not just another nauseating platinum-plated R&B diva, but has been lured to perform in Egypt, for the first time ever, as part of the Mubarak regime's cunning plan to corrupt society.

“The government is trying to make people indulge in sin and licentiousness to cover up the other crimes it is committing against them,” fumed a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Despite being a “booty-shaking believer” and her expressed disappointment that she can't go to church any more because of her fame, Beyoncé is no stranger to religious controversy. In fact, it would seem that Muslim and Christian conservatives, in spite of their conviction that they are worlds apart, actually share a lot of common ground when it comes to female pop stars.

“Beyoncé is NO Christian. She is satanic, serving the Devil!” the website self-righteously and surreally proclaims.

More moderately, the Yuinon, a movement that seeks, in its own words, “to reach, rescue and redeem youth and young adults”, complains that the R&B star is a bad role model for impressionable youth: “Young girls that look up to Beyoncé will think it's acceptable to be in church worshipping teary-eyed on Sunday then frolicking, bootyliciously for a video shoot in some Daisy Dukes the next day.”

Personally, I am not too excited about Beyoncé performing in Egypt, but that's entirely on artistic merit – I simply do not like her style of music. If I have any deeper objections, they centre more on how her overpriced, exclusive will throw into stark relief the gaping chasm between the have-loads and have-nots in Egypt. In a country where the official minimum wage is still stuck in 1984 – at a paltry 35 Egyptian pounds a month (about £3.90) – and many Egyptians are forced to survive on tip-based and street jobs, I wonder how people will react to the news that tickets to the concert are reportedly fetching as much as $400 a pop.

One thing that stumps me with the 's allegations is that, with Beyoncé's concert taking place at an exclusive Red Sea resort hundreds of miles away from any major Egyptian population centre, I can't help thinking that even if the government was out to “corrupt” the morals of the people, there are easier and cheaper ways to do so.

For example, Egypt is the cradle of one of the world's oldest and most suggestive dances, the , which has been traced by historians back to Pharaonic times, was transformed into a high art by the Ottomans, was reinvented as an erotic image of the Orient by the west and was reclaimed by Egyptians and Arabs and fused with other modern dances. Its practitioners are reviled and admired, even idolised in a way that reflects the contradictions of society's attitudes to women at ease with their sexuality. The persona of the ‘alma, with her strong personality, rebelliousness and native decency, good sense and wisdom, is semi-legendary.

Despite the Brotherhood's better efforts, Egypt remains the capital of the pop music industry and is a base for the region's sexiest and most airbrushed pop stars, such as Ruby – although admittedly, most of them come from Lebanon.

One of these, Haifa Wehbe, managed both to win a best song of 2006 award and to cause outrage among those conservatives who have active imaginations with her video Boos el-Wawa (“Kiss the Boo-boo“), a silly dance number featuring her entertaining a child. To add insult to wawa, her latest film has angered some Egyptian Sufis because it apparently features a scene in which her bare legs distract a group of mystics from their prayers.

Many may rightly wonder why, with all the major challenges facing Egypt – poverty, corruption, authoritarianism, overpopulation and environmental degradation – religious conservatives, and even secular Arab activists, are so obsessed with sexy women.

This tendency has an ancient pedigree. “From the fall of al-Andalus to the debacle of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, dancers are depicted in Arab lore as the critical distraction of Arab leaders that caused the demise of Arab glory,” writes Andrew Hammond in Popular Culture in the Arab World.

But this is mistaking the symptom for the malady. Arab leaders may have traditionally been able to surround themselves with female entertainers and concubines, but it is not the dancers who weakened the leader and, by extension the system, it is the authoritarian system in which the ruling elite lives, in many ways, above the law and cannot easily be held to account by the people.

There is also the fear, in a male-dominated society, of the suppressed potential power of women. An example of this is Tawfiq el-Hakim. Crowned as the father of modern Arabic drama, he was also known as aduw al-mar'a (the enemy of women) for his opposition to female emancipation. For instance, in what could have been a great allegorical play about vanity, individualism, collectivism and the pursuit of power, his Fate of a Cockroach descends into a barely veiled attack on the modern, professional woman who dons the proverbial trousers and oppresses her husband.

But El-Hakim is wrong: strong, independent, empowered women do not make cockroaches of men, rather they make humans of us all.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 29 October 2009. Read the related discussion.

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