chapter  4
23 Pages

Debating piety and performing arts in the public sphere: the ‘caravan’ of veiled actresses in Egypt


In the 1980s, several Egyptian artists saw ‘the light’ and publicly announced their retirement from art: the actress Shams al-Barudi (1982) shortly followed by her husband Hassan Yusif, the dancer Hala al-Safi (1987), the singer Shadia (1987), the actress HanaʾTharwat and her husbandMuhammad al-`Arabi (1987) and the singer Yasmin al-Khiyyam (1989). From the 1990s – with a peak in 1992 – the ‘caravan’ of artists stepping down increased at a staggering speed: Shahira, `Afaf Sho`ib and Madiha Hamdi veiled and retired, soon to be followed by Soheir al-Babli, Soheir Ramzi, Sawsan Badr, Farida Seif al-Nasr and many others. These well-to-do stars retired and veiled whilst in the middle of a successful career in art and turned away from the spotlight and stardom. They left wealth and fame behind in order to devote themselves to God. They ‘repented’ of their ‘sins’ and attended religious classes with their veiled colleagues. They were labelled veiled artists (fannanat muhagabat), repentant artists (fannanat taʾibat) or stepped-down artists (fannanat mu`tazilat).2 These former performers started to influence other colleagues, and between 1990 and 1995 around 20 stars stepped down. These pious stars provided a new role model, not only for lower-middle-class women but also for affluent ones. They started to preach veiling and piety among higher-class women and enabled the extension of the piety movement into the higher echelons of Egyptian society. Whereas attacks by ‘militant’ Islamists could be dismissed as ‘terrorist

extremism’, the general Islamic revivalist campaign for morality in society and the field of art could less easily be dismissed by the government and secular artists. Thus the Islamic trend was greeted with an ambivalent attitude by its opponents. The government was trying to profile itself as more religious than the ‘extremists’ (Tadros 1994). It was at the same time opposing and accommodating various strands of Islamists, depending on shifting evaluations of the danger they were perceived to pose to the state (Hirschkind 2006: 61-62). Within this tense climate the ‘repentance’ and veiling of many actresses, singers and dancers proved to be a complex and sensitive issue. They were increasingly perceived as a threat by both the secularists and the state. The veiled artists therefore became objects of intense public debate. These

debates about retired artists can be studied as an example of the emergent public sphere in Egypt. Many voices entered the debate about such crucial issues as art, gender and religion, concerns that came together in the

‘repentance’ and veiling of female artists. Art and popular culture, including entertainment, are difficult to separate in the Egyptian context, as is the case with art and vocations or crafts (Van Nieuwkerk 1995). So I use the notion of art to describe the broad spectrum of cultural products and activities, from ‘high’ culture to popular entertainment, in order to avoid reinstating unproductive distinctions between low culture and high culture. In the context of this particular debate on art, the distinction is particularly made according to the level of assumed morality rather than the quality of the art product. The moral character of art is particularly attached to or read from the behaviour of female performers. The ‘pious turn’ of female artists thus became an issue par excellence for debating morality and notions of the ‘common good’ and the ‘good Muslim’. Media, particularly the written press, cassettes, video and TV, were intensively used by secularists, conservative Muslims, Islamists, the state and ‘repentant’ artists to publicize their version of Islam and moral art. In this chapter, I will look at the development of the ‘pious turn’ of individual

artists into an issue of great national concern, focusing on the period from the early 1980s towards the mid-1990s. I will analyze the ensuing debates and different voices that entered into the debate in the public sphere. The research is based on archive material comprising different newspapers, Islamist booklets on the repentance of artists, and video and TV interviews as well as personal interviews with stepped-down artists. I collected the stories of 30 well-known singers, dancers, actors and actresses who stepped down and ‘repented’, and in some cases returned, including five men. During the fieldwork in 2005, 2006 and 2008, I was able to arrange personal interviews with 17 of them, including three men. I start with the life story of one of the first artists to step down, Hala al-Safi, and show how they remained visible and influential despite their retreat from the spotlight. I then proceed with the life story of one of the vanguard artists of the 1992 caravan, `Afaf Sho`ib, and analyze the ensuing public debates in the public sphere focusing on the different voices in the media. But first I situate the piety of artists within the religious landscape of Egypt at that time.