If it had not been for our collective shock at the uproar surrounding the dress that actress Rania Youssef wore to the 40th edition of the recent Cairo International Film Festival, the world’s media would hardly have covered it.
Had it not been for Islamic preacher Sheikh Khaled Al-Guindi’s new interpretation of the fate of our sexual organs after death, the world’s interest would also not have been redirected towards Islam after weeks in which the activity of the Islamic State (IS) group in the Middle East had seen a significant drop.
Such events and their feedback in Egypt say a lot about the obsession with whatever is related to sex. This obsession cannot be understood without looking back at half a century of political, social and economic developments, or rather at half a century of deterioration.
Some Facebook users lament the passing of the “Good Old Egypt”, the Egypt where people used to exchange smiles and greet each other with “good morning” and “good evening” without feeling the need to judge each other’s religiosity by insisting on using the greeting of al-salam alaykum (literally, “may peace be upon you”).
They also sometimes share photographs of Egyptian actresses in the past who used to wear revealing yet elegant dresses without having to go to court to defend themselves against charges of violating societal values and morals, as Youssef did after her appearance at the Cairo International Film Festival.
The morals of Egyptians are currently under surveillance. This has become obvious not only because of the harsh effects of the Islamism that invaded Egyptian life after the late 1970s and early 1980s, but also because of the fact that many now feel lost between the pushing and shoving of globalisation and the effort of clinging to their roots.
The roots of Egyptian society have endured a lot, however. Extremist Islamist groups that have been left to grow in a political and social vacuum over recent decades have been strengthened by the return of millions of economic migrants from the Gulf where they worked and saved for years and the more classical infatuation with a Western style of life that has gone hand-in-hand with a longing for the country’s ancient Pharaonic civilisation.
All this has bewildered the world and left Egyptians with a dire need of a way out. The only way for years has been women and sex, or sex and women, or women and women, or sex and sex. It is always women and women’s clothes, or the lack of them, that come to the forefront whenever there is a row about morals in Egypt.
Driving in the wrong direction, asking for bribes for official permits, occupying the pavement, seizing the inheritance of sisters, or harassing women and girls in the street and the workplace are rarely considered to be violations of morals. Instead, all sorts of justifications are given — the turning place is too far away, salaries are too low, the pavements are the property of those who own shops nearby, inheritance should be kept in the family and married sisters can thus be deprived of their fair share, and girls or women are “asking for harassment” if they walk in the street.
None of these are seen as morally threatening, but if an actress wears revealing clothes morals are endangered, and if girls wear ripped jeans, ethics are threatened.
Those aged 50 or above who have survived the extremist version of Islam adopted by many over the past five decades now watch in bewilderment to see the reduction of Islam to talk about how to have proper sex, how to enter the bathroom, what prayer should be said before getting in a lift, whether Muslims should befriend Christians, and, last but not least, the regulations covering sex with a dying wife, the advantages of getting married to young girls, and even breastfeeding male colleagues at work.
Such distorted versions of Islam stand in clear contrast to what Islam is really all about. Friends who find themselves looked upon as if they were infidels or non-believers because they refuse to regard women as inferior beings now consider themselves to be living in an Egypt that has nothing to do with the real Egypt.
Their Egypt is one where women can wear a dress without having to jump from their door into a waiting car out of the fear of being seen and categorised as undignified. Their Egypt is one where lawyers do not feel the urge to take an actress to court because of a dress.
Their Egypt is one where millions of people’s lives do not revolve around dignity that has been broken, and morality that has been violated, not because basic education is not available or decent health care is still a dream for many, but because an actress wears a see-through dress at a film festival.
The dress that shook Egypt then moved on to shake the world. Why? Because the world was watching how the Egyptians apparently had nothing better to worry about than a dress worn by an actress.
The world cannot understand why Egyptian prosecutors spend hours questioning an actress about a dress and claiming that it encourages immorality.
The western media covered the issue by referring to an “Islamic” uproar that made the issue look like a war against Islam. It pointed out that the “ostensibly secular authorities often side with the religious conservatives” in “not so secular” Egypt.
This “not so secular” Egypt found itself in shock when Al-Guindi said that people in Paradise will have sex, but they will not have reproductive organs.
Aside from this unexpected interpretation, Al-Guindi’s controversial view of Paradise stood in contrast to the enormous amount of literature that has been accumulating over centuries promising pious Muslim men hoor al-ayn (women of Paradise) with whom they can have sex hundreds of times in Paradise.
The idea of not having reproductive organs in Paradise took millions of Egyptians by surprise, especially since the religious discourse that has been sweeping the country over the past five decades has revolved around male sexual pleasures and women.
Women have been paying a high price for a religious discourse that has gone astray and an identity that has found itself torn between modernity and globalisation on the one side and traditions sabotaged by Islamism on the other.
Women wearing the full face veil, the niqab, or the hijab or veil, or not wearing either, have become the weakest link in a society overtaken by a loss of identity.
The identity of the Egyptians has fallen victim to an imported version of Islam, a former political regime that traded the people in return for its own well-being, a cultural vacuum that has killed many norms and traditions, and the approval of a cross-bred form of culture that has nothing to do with the real Egypt.
In the middle of all this, women, and particularly how they dress, how they talk, and the way they walk or breathe, have been in the crossfire.
Society has become obsessed with women because it has been told that women and sex are the two sides of one coin. The recent controversy over the dress really said it all.
* The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The dress that said it all