Times have changed since I started dancing in 1996. In many ways we are much more liberated than we were then and have a lot more choices, but in making our choices, we shouldn’t forget our history – especially our symbols of oppression in belly dance.
You know those cute little anklets that many dancers wear? Did you know that in some cultures, those weren’t anklets, but shackles? The dancers were slaves who had to perform at the master’s bidding. These shackles could also be found around the neck. Today these are styled to look more fashionable, but their original purpose is still reflected in the design.
Remember belly jewels? They came about because of the Hays code. The Hays code was a set of moral censorship guidelines that were in effect from 1930 to 1968 in response to some risqué` films and Hollywood actors’ off-screen scandals. The code prohibited things like cursing, depicting homosexuality, showing mixed race couples, glamorizing crime and the showing of belly buttons! In defiance of the censors, Joan Collins was the first to wear a belly jewel in the 1950s in Land of the Pharaohs. They became a popular accessory for dancers for a while leading to the public’s erroneous idea that belly jewels were “authentic.”
In Egypt too the belly had to be covered. Dancers resolved that issue by inventing sheer belly covers. This was sort of like a body stocking that covered just the midriff area. They could be skin toned or colored to match the costume.
Egypt took the idea of modesty a bit further requiring that the legs be covered to the mid-thigh. Dancers resolved this issue by wearing color coordinated biker shorts. Again, dancers outside of Egypt adopted this look for a time because it was “authentic.”
Times have changed and we don’t have to deal with any of these things in the west unless we choose to. We enjoy a level of freedom and power that our predecessors and peers elsewhere would envy, but with great power comes great responsibility. And some abuse that power to create another form of oppression upon fellow belly dancers. That is the oppression of emotional bullying. I don’t hear people talking about it in our Sisterhood-of-All-Acceptance-and-Light, but it’s definitely there.
Emotional bullying is not a physical thing like a collar, so it’s harder to detect. It happens when a person targets another person to isolate or shun (exclude from in shows, workshops, talks, shopping trips, tours, etc.). The bully may spread lies and rumors to ruin her enemy’s chances of getting work, interfere with obtaining students, destroy her business or damage her reputation. The bully may appear to be a friend who cleverly gift wraps insults and self-esteem ripping comments. So it doesn’t always have to be done from afar or clandestinely. Sometimes the bully is a mob leader and enlists the help of others to do her dirty work for her or along with her and the abuse snowballs. There are many forms the abuse can take, but the behavior is always deliberate, repetitive, aggressive (or passive aggressive) and designed to hurt.
The tangible symbols of oppression in belly dance are quickly fading into the past with the changing times. Every one of us can have an impact on erasing the invisible shackles of emotional by seeing it for what it is, refusing to participate, and standing up for the victims. As with all domination, emotional bullying exists because the population allows it to. If we are truly to be the Sisterhood that we all proclaim ourselves to be, we have to be welcoming to ALL, not just those we like.
This doesn’t mean we have to suddenly like this style or that person, but it should mean that we treat each other with respect. It is a shame to have thrown off the restraints and gained in power only to use that power to persecute selected individuals or groups.