Joan Smith: Hamas, and the sexual power of real women

Think about it. Could Kate Hudson belly-dance? Nicole Kidman? Cameron Diaz?
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The Independent Online

When I come to write my autobiography, belly-dancing will get a brief but affectionate mention, bringing together such disparate events in my life as a Muslim wedding in Lebanon and a conversation with the Palestinian academic Edward Said in London. I am an enthusiastic, though hardly proficient, belly-dancer, which is how I once came to find myself on an outdoor stage in the garden of the Sursock Palace in Beirut, startling the other guests with my performance during the celebrations following a very grand Shia wedding.

On another occasion, in a restaurant in Turkey, I got up to join a professional belly-dancer, undulating with such obvious enjoyment that I ended the evening with a few million Turkish lire tucked down the front of my Dolce & Gabbana sun-dress. Not long afterwards, when I interviewed Edward Said on stage at a London theatre, I reminded him of an essay in which he described going, as a teenager, to watch the great Egyptian belly-dancer Tahia Carioca. When I suggested that the essay encapsulated an adolescent male's confusing first encounter with the female "other", Said was startled - and then confirmed it by describing an upbringing in which he had little contact with girls and women.

Now Hamas, an organisation whose victory in the Palestinian elections would have horrified Said, has banned belly-dancing. "Belly-dancing is naked women. This is not Islamic," says the new Palestinian culture minister, Attallah Abu al-Sibbah, an Islamic scholar who has joined the Hamas government which was installed last week.

You might think that the new administration has more pressing problems to address than women in shimmering costumes, but Hamas has a puritanical social agenda almost as alarming as its reluctance to renounce terrorism. Mr Sibbah is keen to distance Hamas from the Taliban in Afghanistan, but he wants to ban alcohol, segregate men and women in places of public entertainment and bring an end to what he calls "nakedness".

Some of this is crude politicking in another guise, asserting the moral superiority of the Palestinians over Israel (accused of flooding Palestine with blue movies) and the US ("We're not going to allow books with any pictures of Madonna in bed", declares Mr Sibbah, who is clearly not up-to-speed with the singer's oeuvre. I mean, is he OK about her sampling Abba on the new album or does he think she's sold out?)

But there's no doubt that Hamas wants to impose its narrow vision of moral purity on the Palestinians, who until recently enjoyed one of the most secular cultures in the Middle East. The ban on belly-dancing reveals Hamas's intense suspicion, which it shares with all Islamist organisations, of pleasure and female sexuality; it's no accident, after all, that belly-dancing has been taken up with such gusto by feminists, myself included, who love its celebration of the natural female body.

Belly-dancing long ago took over from salsa as the hot dance class among women in London. While many people in this country will have encountered it only in its most commercial form in Turkish restaurants or on holiday, it has traditionally been performed among women, for their own private enjoyment, as much as on the public stage. That is one of its great pleasures for feminists, along with the fact that belly-dancing requires a voluptuous body shape quite distinct from that of the anorexic models and half-starved celebrities who dominate Western culture.

Think about it for a moment. Could Kate Hudson belly-dance? Nicole Kidman? Cameron Diaz? You can try imagining Victoria Beckham gyrating seductively in a tasselled bra and diaphanous trousers, if you have a particularly vivid imagination, but the effort is beyond me. Earlier this week, the author JK Rowling complained on her website about the impact on adolescent girls of fashion images of stick-thin models, saying she did not want her daughters to grow up as "empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones".

She's quite right to highlight the paradox, in societies where huge numbers of people are overweight and obese, that the desirable shape for a woman is becoming ever more insubstantial; it's a denial of femininity as well as a health problem. Apart from cellulite, there is no bigger sin in London, Paris, New York or Hollywood than having a belly; the stellar figures of traditional Egyptian dance - Carioca and the Palestinian-Egyptian superstar Nagua Fouad, for instance - would be regarded with perplexity, if not hostility, by the people who book the models and actresses whose images are reproduced over and over again in popular culture. So, by the way, would the size-14 Marilyn Monroe.

Today's rich and famous child-women promote a body type which is unachievable by healthy adults. It explains the astonishing willingness of millions of women around the world to have foreign objects such as silicone implants inserted into sensitive parts of their anatomy, for they have been conditioned to hanker after the body of an adolescent boy, combined with unnaturally large breasts. On the one occasion I found myself in the same room as the glamour model Katie Price, otherwise known as Jordan, I was struck by how tiny the rest of her body is in comparison to that absurdly prominent bosom.

It's hard to imagine anything more likely to make women self-obsessed than aspiring to this impossible configuration, which has driven natural curves off the agenda. Of course there are exceptions, notably the actresses Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lopez, whose style recalls a more voluptuous era of Hollywood. But open any celebrity magazine and what you will see is a procession of clones, women whose bodies weirdly exaggerate some female characteristics while denying others.

There is a deep-seated anxiety about the sexual power of mature women at work here, and it should be challenged. But the answer doesn't lie in the purity campaigns of religious fundamentalists, whose pronouncements reveal they share the same fears. Bizarrely, the Palestinian culture minister who dislikes belly-dancing also wants to reopen cinemas in the Gaza strip, and show Hollywood movies, thus replacing real women from Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon with unthreatening Western celluloid fantasies.

It would be easy, in all the discussion of Hamas's attitude towards Israel, to overlook the impact of its domestic policies, especially on women. Despite its sometimes seedy image, belly-dancing is an authentic expression of female culture, encouraging women of all ages to feel good about their bodies and their sexuality. Seeking to ban it, anywhere in the world, is a classic example of reimposing patriarchal values.