Between Divas and Repentants: Negotiating the Image of the Egyptian Woman

Between Divas and Repentants: Negotiating the Image of the Egyptian Woman

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Film-stills, posters, and images of the stars of ‘the golden age’ of Egyptian cinema (1930s -1960s) function in dozens of Egyptian Facebook groups and pages to remember the ‘good old days’. They circulate to mourn the past, and represent a nostalgic sentiment of ‘What ever happened to the Egyptians?’.

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Figure 1: Screenshot of a public Facebook post, captured and edited by author

The question ‘Whatever happened to the Egyptians?’ strikes a chord with a wide segment of the Egyptian middle-class. It expresses concerns about the presumed essence of ‘the real Egyptian’.  In this essay, I turn to social media posts to explore how this question resonates online. I will focus on the images of female stars and their different images and perceptions. Once considered modern cosmopolitan divas who donned red lipstick and flaunted their bodies, they are today self-proclaimed repentant Muslim women: ta'iba. These ta'ibat, however, are not your typical image of repressed women that need liberating – to borrow the title of Lila Abu Lughod’s book: Do Muslim Women Need Saving?.  On the contrary, they are considered to be modern and yet also devout repentant Muslim women. It is this transformation from divas to repentants that I will explore by following the question ‘Whatever happened to Egyptian women?’ on Facebook. 

Negotiating celebrity cultures online 
Ever since 2011 when western and local media touted the Egyptian revolution as a ‘Facebook revolution’, the platform gained wider popularity among an elderly generation that had limited exposure to the internet beforehand. They joined these platforms to ‘be online’ and to experience what it means to be a part of the ongoing debates. Women and men in their late 50s and 60s gathered around particular themes that represented their own social and political interests. 

Remembering the ‘good old days’ or 'al-zaman al-gamil' was one of the main themes that brought these new users together. The concept of the ‘good old days’ is an ephemeral yet potent one,[1] that is subject to different interpretations. The nostalgic discourse of the Facebook users included social imaginaries that varied from a nostalgia for the liberal monarchical era (1920s-1950s), to that for the post-independence socialist era (1950s-1960s), and a multitude of other political and apolitical aesthetic articulations of Egypt’s past. 

Pages and groups dedicated to the ‘good old days’ often circulated vintage photographs to mourn the past and question ‘whatever happened to the Egyptians?’. Film-stills, posters, and images of the stars of ‘the golden age’ of Egyptian cinema (1930s -1960s) formed a significant portion of these vintage photographs. While the members of these communities strongly disagree about politics, they agree that these stars represented the ‘proper’ Egyptians back in the old days. Several images of Egyptian female stars circulated, which came to stand for what it meant to be an Egyptian woman. 

Female stars as spectacles and everyday companions
Cinema and television play a significant role in asserting gender roles and public morals.[2] As such, stars are important bearers of messages from intellectuals and political elites. 

Egyptian cinema (1930s-1950s) was heavily influenced by the modernist, nationalist discourse. Although some of these films present modern, educated female figures, they were rarely the lead figures: they presented women in secondary roles of lovers, housewives, entertainers, etc. This had to do with the emergence of an educated middle-class, which was searching to position itself vis-à-vis the westernized aristocracy on the one hand, and the working-class of peasants and craftsmen on the other. The effendi –the male middle-class employee who acquired modern education– asserted both his modernity and traditionalism.[3] Although the Egyptian feminist project had emerged earlier, it remained confined to the elite classes and had a limited impact on the middle-class.[4] 

In Nasser’s pan-Arab socialist project (1954-1967), cinema became a means to disseminate the image of the modern educated working woman who was indispensable for the development of the nation. The media in this period emphasized that the route to women’s liberation starts with acquiring modern education and contributing to the work force. Female actresses of this period shifted from the elite diva to the socialist working woman who supported the nation. However, while Nasser placed the woman in service of the nation in the public sphere, he left her under the mercy of patriarchy in the private sphere.[5] Most of the female stars of this period represented middle-class women who were dressed fashionably and performed their professional and familial roles in tandem. 

As soon as the media was taken over by private enterprises in the 1970s, the aforementioned images were disrupted. In this period a religious public sphere emerged, which manifested itself in the increase in mosque attendance and the adoption of the veil. The Islamic revival movement touched several female stars who announced their artistic retirement and adopted the hijabThey came to be known as ‘the repentant artists’ (al-fannanat al-ta'ibatof the 1980s and the 1990s. Muslim conservatives applauded this development, which they considered a triumph over the previous state-imposed image of the modern woman. At the same time, other middle-class audiences considered the movement a regression, or even a part of a bigger conspiracy against ‘the authentic’ Egyptian culture and identity. The image of the ta’iba represented a departure from the ‘diva’ of the 1930s and the working woman of the 1950s and 1960s, yet all three images of women had their own gender constraints. 

The confusion regarding which of these female stars represents the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ Egyptian woman is still observed in online discussions that try to find out ‘whatever happened to the Egyptians?’. As I outline in the coming sections, these conflicts represent the multiple imaginaries of modernity that subscribe to liberalism, socialism, Islam, and other cultural milieus. However, it is crucial to recognize that neither the 1950s discourse can be considered as feminist-progressive in its entirety, nor could the Islamic revivalist discourse be dismissed as conservative and anti-feminist. Nasser’s state feminism ‘entailed’ the recognition of women as ‘enfranchised citizens’ who ought to be ‘liberated’ by the regime.[6] On the other side, female Islamic activists were not oppressed by patriarchal forms in Islam, but they were agents who actively mobilize their desire to establish an imaginary of a modern Muslim world.[7]

Longing for Cosmopolitanism
Several Facebook pages dedicated to remembering the nation’s ‘good old days’ posted a vintage coloured image of the actress and singer Leila Mourad (1918-1995) accompanied by a lengthy description.[8] The post represents an imaginary of the past to which the users who circulated it, subscribed. It reflects the imaginary of Cairo as a cosmopolitan city that ‘competed with Paris in its beauty and status’. Mourad is praised for being a symbol of ‘refined Egyptian art’, whose ‘elegance’ and ‘modesty’ qualified her to be ‘an ideal for the Egyptian woman’ (namudhaj al-mar'a al-misriyya). The author expressed a sense of pride that Mourad was dressed – as her Hollywood counterparts – by a famous designer.

“She is dressed in a Coco Chanel gown … Coco – who refused to dress the French First Lady – insisted to dedicate this work of art to Leila Mourad, the magnificent queen of Egypt and the Middle East”.

The comments of the followers on the post – as well as on other similar posts – emphasized the following qualities of the lost past: the ‘civility’ (al-tahaddur), 'progress' (al-taqaddum), and 'sophistication' (al-ruqi). These were put in opposition to a present-day Egypt associated with ‘disrespectfulness’ (inhitat),‘backwardness’ (takhalluf), and ‘vulgarity' (al-suqiyya). While one could not deny the elitist tendencies of the authors and followers of this post, it is crucial to focus on what they mourn: their imaginary of a cosmopolitan modernity.

A sentiment of alienation from the contemporary images of women and the country was at the heart of the comments, as was a longing for a certain cosmopolitanism. Indeed, the discussions on Mourad’s appearance reflect a desire to become part of a bigger world, ‘an aspiration to make global modernity one’s own without being fully connected, included or homogenized’.[9] By asserting Mourad’s ‘modesty’ paralleled with her ‘elegance’ the author and followers present their imagination of the ‘ideal woman’. Indeed, for them, the ideal Egyptian woman is both modern and traditional. As such, it represents a female counterpart for the twentieth-century effendi. 

The post on Mourad is part of a bigger genre that glorifies images of the modern woman dressed elegantly at balls, walking in the streets of Cairo in a short dress, working in factories, being part of female scout groups, etc. Although these images reflect different political ideologies, they have one thing in common: they represent women who ‘looked’ like their Western counterparts, dressed in a modern attire, regardless of their position or social class. And as this image is juxtaposed against imaginaries of contemporary Egyptian women, it is nostalgic.

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Figure 2: Ana Hurra Meme, captured and edited by author

My Lipstick, my Freedom, and the Public Morale
Another meme shows film-stills from Ana Hurra/ I am Free (1959) along with a dialogue between its female protagonist (Lobna Abdel-Aziz) and her fiancé in the presence of her aunt. When the fiancé expresses his dislike of Lobna wearing lipstick, the aunt defends her, arguing that that there was nothing wrong with lipstick (mish 'ib)Lobna utilized this incident to teach him a lesson: ‘I don’t care if you approve it, as long as I and my aunt approve it’. Lobna asserted that as long as the matriarch of the family ‘approves’ of her looks, her soon to be husband should have no say about it. 

Such a simple – and perhaps naïve – dialogue ignited debate among Facebook users in 2020. They were divided between supporters and opponents to the character of Lobna and the image of the woman she represented. While several men praised her ‘beauty’, ‘elegance’, and ‘femininity’, the majority attacked her fierceness that did not coincide with ‘our habits and traditions’ ('adatna wa taqaliduna). A female user called it one of the silly movies that were meant to create disputes (fitan) in Islamic society and to destroy Muslim homes. This is the case of Egyptian drama all the time’Others, on the other hand, considered Lobna to be representative of the Egyptian woman with the ‘free-spirit (al-ruh al-hurra) that refuses subjugation’, and representative of better times in which there was a strong enlightening movement that ended in the mid-seventies when a regressive movement  (haraka raj'iyya) took over and destroyed all the accomplishments of the past years’.

With the seemingly simple act of wearing lipstick against the will of her partner, Lobna unleashed a debate that revealed opposing imaginaries of modernity. Today’s advocates of ‘secularism’ found in the 1970s Islamic Revival a regression against the advancements of the earlier feminist movements. This opinion was shared by several secular intellectuals, who argued that the popularity of the hijab disrupted and mutated the image of the modern Egyptian woman.[10] They perceived the hijab to be a deviation from the path of female emancipation; a blind mimicry of Wahabism that was brought to Egypt when workers and middle-classes travelled to make their livings in the oil rich countries of the Arabian Gulf. 

The interpretation of the hijab as contrary to women’s emancipation dismisses the agency of women in choosing their outfits and fails to understand the social and political complexity of Islamic Revival. Mahmood highlighted how the women’s mosque movement defined such secularist imaginary as a threat to the authentic Muslim society they sought.[11] These women expressed their concern on how the state reduced Islam to a collection of ceremonies and customs, instead of being a way of giving meaning. They considered mass media to be one of the many means employed towards this end. Like the commentator who considered this film to represent chaos or fit (sing. of fitan)the Islamic revivalist imaginary rejected these top-down dictations of feminism and meanings of modernity and emancipation. 

Who is the prettiest in Hijab?
In the groups dedicated to remembering Egypt’s ‘good old days’ the images of the hijabi repentant artists enjoy immense popularity. One interpretation of this can be derived from Abu-Lughod’s (2005) ethnographic account where she argued that audiences from working and middle-class women felt they could relate more to stars who – as they did themselves – adopted the hijab.[12]

Recently, one internet user posted ‘photoshopped’ photographs of the female stars of the ‘good old days’ in hijab. He also coloured the images and changed the backgrounds to present clear blue skies and blossoming forests that might be symbolic of serenity and purity. The post was widely circulated with a short text that read ‘The artists of the past in Hijab. Who is the prettiest?’. Commentators engaged in making moral judgements on their life and career choices, even asking for forgiveness for the artists they loved, and admiring how they looked in the veil. Some argued that ‘they look more Egyptian now’. 

Claiming the image of the female stars and editing them to suit the tastes of these online audiences, shows the complexities of the imaginaries of the followers of ‘the good old days’. These followers are loyal to the celebrity cultures of the past. However, they are not mere passive consumers: they employed the digital medium to edit the image of their stars into other versions that are closer to their imaginary of the ideal woman. Unlike more fanatic imaginaries of Islamic revivalism, the makers/followers of this post did not reject the images of women in mass media, instead they appropriated them. 

" " Figure 3: Screenshot of a post on the artists of the beautiful times in Hijab, captured by author

At the heart of this question of whatever happened to the Egyptian woman, are competing imaginaries of modernity that belong to different political projects. The online audiences of ‘the good old days’ often refrain from directly discussing politics. Instead they negotiate abstract notions like ‘civility’, ‘sophistication’, ‘emancipation’, ‘habits’ and ‘traditions’ that define their imaginaries of belonging. While some argue that the image of the Egyptian woman was disrupted by Islamic revival, others argue that the image of the modern Egyptian woman is a westernized artefact superimposed by the state and its elites. In their negotiations of the images of female stars from a diva to a repentant, these online audiences asserted different and often contradicting aspirations. This included a longing for cosmopolitanism and the desire to be part of the modern world while maintaining their culture and traditions, as well as the desire to follow – and perhaps revise – the multiple feminists projects from state feminism to the Islamic one. 

Nermin el-Sherif is a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies (AHM, UvA) with a background in design and urbanism. She is born and raised in Egypt where she worked simultaneously between academic teaching, research, and various grassroots initiatives. Nermin’s current research focuses on new media and its societal impacts under authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. She explores social media platforms as sites of cultural production where identities are negotiated and collective memories are coproduced.

[1] Lucie Ryzova, “Unstable Icons, Contested Histories: Vintage Photographs and Neoliberal Memory in Contemporary Egypt,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 8, no. 1 (2015): 37–68.

[2] Viola Shafik, Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class, and Nation (Cairo; New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2007).

[3] Ryzova, The Age of the Efendiyya.

[4] Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics (Berkeley: Univeristy of California Press, 2005).

[5] Laura Bier, Revolutionary Womanhood: Feminisms, Modernity, and the State in Nasser’s Egypt (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011).

[6] Bier, Revolutionary Womanhood.

[7] Saba Mahmood, Politics of PietyPolitics of Piety (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[8] As the post was downloaded, uploaded, circualted by several users, it was impossible to identify the first author.

[9] Samuli Schielke, “Surfaces of Longing: Cosmopolitan Aspiration and Frustration in Egypt,” City and Society 24, 1:29.

[10] Like the novelist Youssef Zidan, the writer Khaled Muntaser, the scriptwriter Wahid Hamed, and the director Khaled Youssef. These figures were often labeled as ‘secularists’ in Egyptian mass-media that framed them as opponents to the growing Islamization, especially after the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Some of them also refer to themselves as ‘secularists’.   

[11] Mahmood, Politics of Piety.

[12] Lila Abu-Lughod, Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt, vol. 25 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).