Article by Musa Shadeedi
Translations by Hiba Moustafa
Design by
Lina A., using an image from a postcard showing ghawazee, c. 1880
This article is part of the “
Ya Leil Ya Eyein” issue

British orientalist Edward Lane wrote, “The scenes which ensue cannot be described. I need scarcely add that these women [ghawazee] are the most abandoned of the courtesans of Egypt.”1 This is how Western travelers and visitors viewed female dancers, or ghawazee, in Egypt; they trembled in fear before the swaggering female body in our countries. We see this in one of Gustav Flaubert’s letters to his lover Louise Colet in 1853, where, after completing a voyage to the ‘Orient’ and writing about his sexual relationship with Kuchuk Hanem (a famous Egyptian dancer), he described all Eastern women in stereotypical terms. With the disgusting, patriarchal, racist tone that dominated the work of orientalist travelers writings on female dancers, Flaubert wrote, “The oriental woman is no more than a machine: she makes no distinction be­tween one man and another man.”2 

Here, I aim to understand how Western disgust of baladi female dancers in our countries has effected this art, and how this disgust contributed to the emergence of Khawalat3. It is also an attempt to note some texts that offer a brief history of them and their role in public life. 

Hostility against ghawazee (public female dancers) 

Disgust prevailed in the West’s view of women’s dancing in the ‘Orient.’ Writings of foreign visitors claimed these dancers represented degeneracy, lustfulness and corruption that were not to their taste, often comparing it to Western dancing to prove their point. One of these foreigners was Antoine Clot (Clot Bey), a French physician whom Muhammad Ali Pasha (a man fascinated by Western modernity and tried to copy it) invited to Egypt in 1825 to become surgeon-in-chief of the Egyptian army, the Pasha’s chief surgeon and the founder of Qasr El Eyni Hospital, the first modern medical school in Arabic-speaking countries. 

Describing his observations on dance, Clot Bey wrote, “There is no resemblance between the Orient’s dancing and that of Europe; in Europe dancing is generally a form of entertainment between the two sexes, but in the Orient, women never dance with men.”4 And on women’s dancing specifically, he added that, “The nature of their [Eastern dancers] dancing is very licentious that neither will I venture to describe the details nor talk about it in general terms.”5 Not liking how women here danced alone, which was very unlike in the West where men controlled women’s bodies, Clot Bey imposed Europe’s conservative Victorian Christian moralities that destested everything that could be perceived as sexual and criticized our culture through a Western lens.Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, an Al-Azhar student and imam of the first group sent by Muhammad Ali to the West to learn ‘modernity’ and transferring it to our ‘decadent’ countries, made a strikingly similar comparison between dancing here and dancing in the West. In his book, Takhlis al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz (An Imam in Paris: Al-Tahtawi’s Visit To France 1826-1831) (1834) al-Tahtawi claimed that, 

Everyone in France loves dancing, which is considered something distinguished and elegant, instead of morally depraved. By the same token, it never departs from the rules of decency, whereas in Egypt the dance is one of the specialities of women since it arouses desires. Conversely, in Paris, it is a special kind of jump, which is entirely devoid of even the slightest whiff of debauchery.6 

It’s as if al-Tahtawi’s words were a copy of Clot’s racist opinion, showing how the Western hatred of our dance is absorbed and repeated on moral grounds  by native people close to the authorities. Their moral logic depended on the West as a reference for what is polite and respectable (no wonder since this was the reason for being sent to Paris to begin with) and the East as representing everything impolite and lustful, as if lust were abominable. 

Muhammad Ali enacted a law that prohibited female dancers from public performance in the same year that al-Tahtawi’s book was published7. Such a gesture satisfied both conservative local clergymen and Westerners disgusted at ‘Eastern degeneration,’ and achieved Ali’s ambitions to recreate a country that is closer to the West or, in other words, more ‘modern,’ which would for sure give him more power to control female dancers economically.

Placing this in a broader context, scholar and writer Sherifa Zuhur argued that, “Certain cities in the Ottoman Empire passed laws against public performances by females. These were intended to allow officials to control the prostitutes in these areas, and to extract taxes from their guilds and those of singers and dancers. Therefore, female public performances came to be associated with prostitution, transvestism (boys dressed as women could perform in public) …”8 The state’s patriarchal attempt to control women’s bodies and limit their presence in public space, and women’s dominance over performance and dancing, led to men having wider freedoms to penetrate dancing and performance spaces and filled the gap left by women’s exclusion. And so it happened.

Design by Lina A., using an images from a khawal, c. 1870 and a photos from postcard showing an Egyptian khawal, c. 1907

The Emergence of Khawalat

This is how khawalat, men who dressed and danced exactly like women, emerged. Cairo was the most prominent city in the Arabic-speaking region where men were commissioned to dance instead of women. Speaking of khawalat, Lane wrote that:

They [khawalat, sing. khawal] are Muslims, and natives of Egypt. As they personate women, their dances are exactly of the same description as those of the Ghawázee; and are, in like manner, accompanied by the sounds of castanets: but, as if to prevent their being thought to be really females, their dress is suited to their unnatural professions; being partly male, and partly female: it chiefly consists of a tight vest, a girdle, and a kind of petticoat. Their general appearance, however, is more feminine than masculine: they suffer the hair of the head to grow long, and generally braid it, in the manner of the women; the hair on the face, when it begins to grow, they pluck out; and they imitate the women also in applying kohl and ḥennà to their eyes and hands. In the streets, when not engaged in dancing, they often even veil their faces; not from shame, but merely to affect the manners of women. They are often employed, in preference to the ghawázee, to dance before a house, or in its court, on the occasion of a marriage-fête, or the birth of a child, or a circumcision; and frequently perform at public festivals.9

A khawal was not only so during dancing but in all aspects of his life; even after the dancing was over, he dressed like women in public spaces. Additionally, this text shows that people preferred khawalat to ghawazee when it came to dancing in public spaces, even when ghawazee were available to perform, in part because this was the most observant of religion and its teachings at the time.

Another orientalist, Gérard de Nerval, wrote about his experience in the city’s pubs: 

First of all I was struck by the brilliant colours of the skull-caps which topped their glossy tresses. Small bells rang and rings jangled as their heels beat the floor, while their raised arms whirled in time with the boisterous rhythm and their hips quivered voluptuously. Under the transparent muslin their waists were naked between their short blouses and their ornate, low hanging girdles, but so rapidly did they turn and spin that I could scarcely make out the features of these seductive dancers. Two of them, however, were intoxicating beauties … Their expression was proud, their Arabic eyes glittered with kohl, their plump but delicate cheeks were lightly painted; but the third one, I have to admit, evidently belonged to the less tender sex … he had a week’s growth of beard! When the dance was over I was at last able to examine the features of the two girls more attentively, as though I were in Paris about to offer the apple, and then, despite my initial incredulity, I was obliged to recognize that, like their partner, these two potential Venuses were … males!10

Thus, when it came to khawalat, orientalists were overtaken by terror or astonishment. And yet, they wanted to see these “corrupt female dancers” again. They came to this ‘Orient’ to see its ‘perversions’ that already disgusted them. Edward Said wrote that, “… the Orient was a place where one could look for sexual experience unobtainable in Europe. Virtually no European writer who wrote on or traveled to the Orient in the period after 1800 exempted himself or herself from this quest ….”11 ‘Oriental sex’ became a commodity offered by the colonies at a time when sex in Europe was so restricted. 

Even Flaubert was disappointed not to find any female dancer in Cairo (before meeting Kuchuk Hanem in her exile). Writing to his friend Louis Bouilhet, he complained that, 

We have not yet seen any dancing girls; they are all in exile in Upper Egypt. Good brothels no longer exist in Cairo, either. The party we were to have had on the Nile the last time I wrote you fell through – no loss there. But we have seen male dancers. Oh! Oh! Oh! … As dancers, imagine two rascals, quite ugly, but charming in their corruption, in their obscene leerings and the effeminacy of their movements, dressed as women, their eyes painted with antimony. … From time to time during, during the dance, the impresario, or pimp, who brought them plays around them, kissing them on the belly, the arse, and the small of the back, and making obscene remarks in an effort to put additional spice into a thing quite self-evident. It is too beautiful to be exciting. I doubt whether we shall find the women as good as the men; … I’ll have this marvelous Hasan el-Belbeissi come again. He’ll dance the bee dance for me, in particular12. 

Despite viewing this type of dancing and its consequences as a form of obscenity and who performed it were”rascals,” “ugly” and “corrupt,” Flaubert was excited to see them again.

when it came to khawalat, orientalists were overtaken by terror or astonishment. And yet, they wanted to see these “corrupt female dancers” again. They came to this ‘Orient’ to see its ‘perversions’ that already disgusted them. 

Hostility against khawalat

When the East let women dance in public spaces, it was accused of degeneration and corruption. When it banned them and allowed men to instead, it was scorned as effeminate and emasculated. The same patriarchal West that was revolted by female dancers for being lustful scorned male dancers for their work being disgusting and reprehensible. In Clot Bey’s words, 

Young male dancers (khawalat) dressed in feminine clothes. While here [in Europe], a man who dances rarely excites pleasant feelings, the Egyptian khawal leaves one with a feeling of disgust. What is deemed immoral in the performance of awalem13 becomes revolting in khawalat’s14.

This is not some Western traveler’s hatred of dancing in our countries, but the comment of a Western official within the Egyptian government, which is not only patriarchal and misogynist but also racist. Clot Bey projected ‘their’ ethics on us, concluding that khawalat‘s dancing is “revolting” while being applauded by the people of the country he spoke about. He blamed those who criticized awalem‘s dancing for not criticizing khawalat‘s, going even further by urging the Egyptian government to put an end to the “filthiness” and “corruption” of these “effeminate” khawalat

Clot Bey continued, 

Since female dancers were prohibited from performing in public, the number of these effeminate male dancers reached shameful levels, that one form of corruption was replaced by a more heinous one. I call upon the Egyptian government to uproot without delay this disgrace that defiles the Egyptian soil15. 

This was perhaps one of the first and most prominent attempts at incitement against khawalat in history. This is how those Westerners defined manhood and ethics for us in our own countries. And, this lay the basis for hatred of and hostility against khawalat that echoes until today; we hear these opinions said in the name of customs and traditions.

Egyptian historian and writer Ahmad Amin — a qadi educated at University of Al-Azhar who has traveled to several conferences on Orientalism in Western countries — expressed similar disgust, writing,

At the time of Muhammad Ali, ghawazee used to dance in the streets, arousing the desire of passers-by, so there was an order that prohibited them from public performance. Khawalat, for love of dancing, took their place. They were men who losing their manhood adopted feminine speech and movement, which is uglier and more terrible16. 

In that way, the West’s disgust of our culture has been transformed into customs and traditions, adopted and reproduced with a local flavor as if disgust of our culture and ourselves has become a local practice. 

Though the components of such a speech are inherent in that of the colonizer, they are being presented today as if they were anti-colonialist. Women went back to public performance when women dancing was decriminalized in 1854. At the time of Jamal Abdel Nasser and the rise of Arab nationalist thought in the mid 20th C, when its intellectuals tried to introduce “Arabs” as virtuous as a reaction to everything that orientalists were revolted by, we find that even the way nationalist elitists dealt with social issues, especially sexual ones, is merely a reflection of orientalism. Like Ahmad Amin, they adopted the same Western disgust and produced an Arabism devoid of what the West hated, as if they were trying to please them (see Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs (2007)). And so khawalat disappeared gradually, and ‘khawal’ has become a curse and stigma for any man who acts femininely or plays a passive role in homosexual sex in Egyptian narratives. Definitely, however, men continued to perform baladi dancing in our countries within very limited contexts. And ironically, the West that was once disgusted by our women and men’s dancing for being lustful and degenerate and urged our governments to eliminate the khawalat phenomenon is now revolted by us for not allowing men to dress in women’s clothes like khawalat and dance in public spaces.

  1. E. W. Lane‏, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, The American University in Cairo Press, reprinted from the definitive 1860 edition, 2003, p. 379.
  2. Quoted in E. W. Said, Orientalism, Vintage Books, 1979, p. 187.
  3. In English, there is a tendency to add “s” to the singular form of Arabic words when transliterating them. In Arabic, however, the plural form of words is entirely different from their singular one. Thus, in this case, khawalat, and not khawals, is the plural of khawal, and this is how I used it throughout the translation.
  4. A. B. Clot, Aperçu général sur l’Égypte (A General Overview of Egypt), vol 2, Meline, Cans et Compagnie, 1840, p. 89. Translation is my own.
  5. ibid, p. 92. Translation is my own.
  6. R. al-Tahtawi, An Imam in Paris: Al-Tahtawi’s Visit To France 1826-1831, trans. D. L. Newman, Saqi Books, reprinted edition, 2011, p. 231
  7. K. van Nieuwkerk, A Trade like Any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt, University of Texas Press, 4th edition, 2002, p. 32.
  8. S. Zuhur, Asmahan’s Secrets: Woman, War, and Song, The Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 2000, p. 11.
  9. E. W. Lane‏, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, The American University in Cairo Press, reprinted from the definitive 1860 edition, 2003, pp. 381-82.
  10. G. de Nerval, Journey to the Orient, New York University Press, 1972, p. 26
  11. E. W. Said, Orientalism, Vintage Books, 1979, p. 190
  12. G. Flaubert, The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1830-1857, trans. Francis Steegmuller, Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 110-11
  13.  Awalem, plural. Singular, almah: a female dancer whose performance was usually accompanied by a singer. An almah had younger female dancers performing under her supervision. She performed in dancing suits, but also in revealing dresses and baladi (native) outfits.
  14. A. B. Clot, Aperçu général sur l’Égypte, vol 2, Meline, Cans et Compagnie, 1840, p. 94-5. Translation is my own.
  15. Ibid. Translation is my own.
  16. A. Amin. Qamus al-Adat wa al-Taqalid wa al-Taabir al-Misriya (Dictionary of Egyptian Customs, Traditions and Expressions). Hindawi Publishing, 2013, p. 215. Translation is my own.