A multimedia event @ Mosaic Rooms, July 2019
Through a series of words, dance, music and performance we want to explore with you what it means to feel wrong, particularly as a woman and particularly as a woman from that nameless region: the Middle East, southwest asia and north africa, arabic speaking countries and in some cases not. The lines here are as blurred as they are when it comes to defining womanhood.
The first thing I remember learning about being a woman was all the things I wasn't supposed to do - run, be loud, have too many opinions. They got more and more complex the older I got: don't be intimidating or too career focused, don’t have sex or drink or smoke. Daily life was about navigating all the ways I needed to make myself smaller and more acceptable in appearance, body language, behaviour, life choices, and the way I spoke. Some women had these arbitrary measures forced on them while others were not allowed access to them because they were born into the wrong class, race, sex, body, or because they have the wrong kind of desire. A long list of contradictions and impossible standards. And even when you travel (if you can travel) you learn that you are not liberal enough, not conservative enough or not doing enough to be a perfect balance of both. And none of these choices were ours to make, like a cruel twist of fate that is continuously being written and rewritten by history and other political forces that think they know us better than we know ourselves.
Power is about choice, who has it, who can bestow it and who can take it away from others. And the structures of power are only becoming more elaborate - from the home to the state, across cultures, religions and borders - notions of womanhood change and compound to ultimately create a maze so complex that you realise the game is rigged. There is no winning - in their eyes, we’ll never be the right kind of women.
Tonight is a celebration of every wrong woman, for every authentic action we took as our private revolution, for all the times we were not allowed to be or do or think exactly what we wanted, and for all the times we existed loudly and lived to tell the tale. We know the ultimate irony here, no matter how much we’re told that we’re the wrong kind of women, the reality is there is no right way to be a woman.
Just something to think about as you proceed through the night, like with everything else we do we want this to be a conversation in multiple mediums. So as you listen and watch think about how it’s making you feel, if you can relate, if you heard a word or line that you want to share and expand on - please do because at the end of the evening we’ll have an open discussion about all these themes where we’ll ask you to share and think with us out loud.
“Power is about choice, who has it, who can bestow it and who can take it away from others.”
So who is Oum Kulthoum and why would we want to discuss an essay on her sexuality on a night like this?
P. 7: “There is no doubt that Oum Kulthoum did not conform to societal norms of femininity, sexuality, or marriage.”
Unusual considering that she is probably the most famous person - of any gender - in the Arabic speaking world, where the fixation on celebrities’ personal lives, especially women is particularly heightened. And a description like the one I just read out would normally be a career killer but she was truly a legend - kawkab alsharq - her voice synonymous with home for millions of people, entire cities would come to a halt during one of her concerts. Her power extended beyond the world of entertainment and squarely sat in the social and political realm as well.
Her story is unique in many ways but because of who she was, it was never just HER story. It belonged to her audience, to her country, to the region and sometimes to political causes. Beyond an idol, she was a national symbol like the pyramids or the Nile.
Today we gathered some excerpts as chosen by our community from Musa Al Shadeedi’s bilingual booklet - Oum Kulthoum’s Sexuality (available to buy here) to try and better understand how such a huge figure defied and transcended gender norms, how her womanhood and sexuality was perceived and why there had to be so much discussion of it in the first place. At the end of the day all these elements should be of no concern to anyone but herself, and so the fixation of others on her gender and sexuality tells us more about society than it does about her.
- P.9/10 English: “The screams of the baby break through the room and all eyes are focused on what is between the baby’s legs. Heads lean and whisper: “Is it a boy or a girl? A boy or a girl?”...”Girl” the midwife says with a sombre voice.”
Oum Kulthoum was born at the turn of the 20th century - Egypt was under a complex system of governance that made it both an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire as well as a de facto British protectorate.
- P.12 English: “The liberation of colonised lands also links to liberation of the body, as the colonizer controlled the sexuality of its subjects, especially women, as a further tool for gaining and maintaining power. The legacy of this subjugation is still prominent in Arabic-speaking countries and their sexual narratives. The simplest examples of this are the laws criminalizing “unnatural sexual intercourse,” reducing the penalty of killing women on the grounds of “honor,” and acquitting rapists if they marry their victims. These laws are relics of the colonial era and are based on values that reinforce the dominance of heteronormative men on the bodies of women and sexually non-normative individuals. The effects of colonialism are ongoing in how people and audiences in Arab speaking communities view Oum Kullthoum’s sexuality.”
So we’ve set the scene, the star is about to flourish, and because she was born to a conservative family in a small village, being a singer wasn’t going to be an obvious option for the little girl. But her father recognised her talent and had her perform with her brother - but for years, Oum Kulthoum’s father dressed her up as a boy when they sang so her morality and reputation would not come into question. This continued for many years until she moved from the countryside to Cairo where Oum Kulthoum herself realised it was no longer necessary to hide because women singing was a more familiar sight in the capital. An acknowledgement of how radically perceptions of gender, and with it notions of propriety, can change depending on where you are geographically.
P.19: “Neither Oum Kulthom nor her family had any interest in defying or rebelling against social norms. In fact they made serious attempts not to do so. Society had dictated that a woman’s voice is a disgrace and that singing was not a suitable job for a woman so Oum Kulthom became a “man” to make her singing more acceptable. But that choice was a rebellion in itself. Oum Kulthom‘s artistic experience and her experience with her gender are inextricably linked, for a woman’s voice is not just a voice, it is a gendered voice.”
And this is something that stayed with her. Once her career took off, it was clear that her voice, her image and how she carried herself were like nothing that had been seen before. Whether she intended to or not, she would not fit neatly into their boxes. Here are some of the things that were said about her:
P.28: “We have never seen her as being capable of being someone’s girlfriend or lover...she is very confusing; she’s not a man and she’s not a lady. She’s a weird mixture that includes femininity and masculinity.”
P. 27: “Whatever she did, she would never be masculine or feminine “enough” in their eyes.
P. 26: “She was constantly adapting to her environment and its expectations. In the countryside, she disguised her femininity. In Cairo, she was seen as inadequate because of her family’s socioeconomic status and background, and her “lack of femininity,” despite the riches she earned. But in both cases, we see that the woman’s body is subject to monitoring and control.”
The moving goal post is a confusing and effective tool for control, because if you’re constantly trying to adapt to and appease the people around you then you don’t have time to grow and become everything you could be. Oum Kolthoum had the unique opportunity to carve a space for herself in history and in our psyches because of her unquestionable talent and because she commanded respect, yet society still felt entitled to these critiques and comments because she belonged to everyone, she was a national icon and therefore public property. They idolised her and consequently dehumanised her. But history will show that one woman’s voice can drown out the voices of millions of men and that Oum Kulthoum ultimately belongs to no one but Oum Kulthoum. She is truly a great example of how much a “wrong” kind of woman can achieve.
We are too much and not enough, too loud, too sexual, have too many kids or not enough kids, too emotional, too dependent, too loose, we love the wrong people and sometimes shouldn’t love at all. But as we find our voices, I hope we never stop shouting and dancing and existing as loudly as possible.
Because baby, if loving you is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.
Themes for discussion:
- How have you been made to feel wrong?
- Why are we so obsessed with the idea of creating the perfect or ideal woman?
- How and why are these parameters of womanhood being drawn?
- Contradiction of these social gender norms being enforced so rigidly when they differ so greatly along geographical, class, and racial lines?
- How can fitting outside of these norms - being wrong - feel like a celebration/personal rebellion without putting oneself in harms way?