Seems like every time you see a woman from the Middle East she’s either conservatively veiled or looks like she’s applied her make-up with a paint gun.
With the exceptions of Queen Rania and (though I grind my molars to dust as I write her name) Asma Assad, and now Amal Alamuddin–where the hell has class and glamour gone? Young women in the Middle East (and you can say the world over) are constantly subjected to ideas of what beauty should be. Whether thinking the veil is the only way to be a proper lady; or believing they have to have their noses smashed into conveyor-belt “perfection” (make sure you throw in a pair of lips that look like they’re about to explode vaseline onto the nearest surface). Add to that the nauseating insistence that lighter complexions are superior to darker ones-and you’ve got a bomb site of a socio-psychological landscape. At least in the West we celebrate the women of “unorthodox” (by Hollywood and porn standards) beauty and talent like actresses Isabella Rossellini, Tilda Swinton, Gadbourey Sidibe, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Samantha Morton, Viola Davis, and Aida Turturro-to name a few. Even high fashion with their fatally impossible standards have showcased such beauties as Alek Wek, Erin O’Connor, and Karen Elson. Alas, it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when glamour, class, and style were at the forefront of Egyptian and Middle Eastern society
In the interest of transparency, Queen Nazli, Queen Farida, and Princess Fawzia were my Great Grandmother, and Great Aunts. I’m no monarchist, but it is infuriating to be exposed to a western narrative that pities women from this region and alleges to have the copyright on all things ‘beautiful’ and ‘modern’. Even through Nasser’s era, Egyptian actresses, singers, and everyday women were exemplars of progress and gorgeousness.
The end seemed to come after the loss of the 1967 War to Israel. Coupled with a bankrupt economy from Nasser’s aggressive and unbalanced nationalization of industries, by the time of Mubarak’s reign the nation had been opened up to caustic neoliberal economic policies. This era also saw significant waves of young Egyptians seeking employment in the Gulf. They would return in the late 80s/early 90s changed by the conservatism in their host countries. Saudi influence also materialized in the form of TV shows and commentators. What this has meant (amongst a host of things) for our generation is an erasure of the women’s right to determine her own appearance. As more women in the middle and higher classes took on the hijab or chador-the hypocritical but natural appetite for the feminine form became more ostentatious, haughty, tacky, and trashy. Even the art of belly-dancing, with its incredible knowledge of the sultry and the emphasis of the “hinted-at” has given way to short shorts, PVC-made chaps, and booby tassels. It has also degraded women in the streets to those that are submissive (those that veil) and those in need of crushing (those who do not). Neither sartorial choice will spare you on a given boulevard. What has transpired, according to this writer, is that women have been relegated to the station of putty. Believing the powers at the time that this was the way forward-the women were made to bend. Yet men (even those that proclaim to) do not want clay- seek a person. Which is why so many men insist on marrying a virgin. They visit their betrothed and then take home their loose ex after a night of dancing and drinking. This is why we have such an insidious duality when it comes to the modern Egyptian woman. Men are just as much victims of this jaundice enduring conservatism as the women they marry, cheat on, keep, or degrade in the streets. We all suffer, if only we could just see.