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  • Lisa Lumina

Femininity for All

The other day, I picked up some pink paint swatches. I'm considering repainting my bedroom (currently a light green) in a color that I spent years "hating"; or, more accurately, not allowing myself to like. Femme folks (girls, trans-women, cis-women, femme-presenting non-binary folks, and other shades of lady-like), and really everyone else too, have all gotten plenty of messages throughout our lives that "girly" things are bad. I think this quote from the intro to a Madonna song sums up society's attitude well.

"Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short

Wear shirts and boots 'cause it's okay to be a boy

But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading

'Cause you think that being a girl is degrading"

This absolutely plays into how bellydance is marginalized, especially in areas where it is primarily an art performed in public by cis-women, often with various cosmetic enhancements to emphasize their femininity, or by those who do not fit easily into a gender binary; but also into the ways bellydance can be healing to the parts of us damaged by patriarchy.

Many masculine folks internalized this as described by Bell Hooks: "The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem." and as comically presented by Ryan George in the video above.

Even if we weren't subjected to alpha male podcasts or being outright told that a "woman's place is in the home" while growing up, we are exposed to these messages through norms, through sitcom jokes, media tropes, different access to sporting equipment, biased teachers and coworkers, and so on.

Many people internalized, consciously or unconsciously, the idea that "girly = bad. boyish = good". For girls and femme-folk, this can manifest as denying ourselves things we enjoy because we judge them as "girly" or because we are afraid we will be judged as less because of our enjoyment of those things.

This demand from patriarchy to appear emotionless and all the rest is rooted in the ridiculous idea that emotions are feminine as well as that feminine things are bad. Thanks to queer, trans, and non-binary folks writing, conversations, and scholarship, awareness of these and other "masculine" and "feminine" traits as being arbitrary and culturally specific are gaining wider awareness. "Feminine" traits are not only not defined by or innate to a certain set of chromosomes or body parts, but those ideas also fluctuate over time and across different cultures.

Which brings us to the idea of what is it that supposedly makes bellydance "feminine". As Andrea Deagon says in her essay "Bellydance in Patriarchy":

"to many of us in the West – (feminine art) looks a lot like what we do in belly dance...  It’s circular, free-flowing, and nuanced, rather than direct and goal-oriented.  It’s improvisational rather than rigidly structured and planned... She expresses feeling, rather than telling a story...

Are any of these qualities of belly dance masculine?  Not as we see it!  Men are direct, linear and logical.  They’re outwardly-focused, dominant, and self-willed... In reality, these aesthetics are essentially those of traditional Arab music and dance, as described by scholars such as Louise Ibsen al-Faruqi, Ali Jihad Racy, and Anthony Shay.  Arab music and dance evoke circularity and oscillation; they’re based on repetition and variation, tension and release, rather than rigidly structured toward a single focused end...

Reading these values as feminine rather than Arab or for that matter, available to any artist, puts us in an odd position.  We honor our own Western experience of femininity... (and) unfairly deny this sort of aesthetic expression to men in our own culture.  We fail to acknowledge the aesthetics of the Arab world that created this dance,  and we do that all-too-colonial thing: we feminize the Arab “Other,” which, in the metaphor of all patriarchies, aligns him with inherent flaws and inevitable defeat.  In claiming that Belly dance is fundamentally feminine, we truthfully reflect the often-empowering ideals of our own culture.  However, we also we fall prey to the limitations our patriarchy imposes on both genders, limit our own freedom of expression, exclude men, and repress Arabs all in one fell swoop." 

So, we know that emotions are something that men have, that gender is a fluid and cultural concept, and that many of the supposedly "feminine" aspects of raqs sharki are simply Arabic artistic aesthetics. There is one aspect of raqs that is feminine, and that is the practice of it in female social spaces in cultures or families where this binary is more explicitly enforced. Yame writes about how having this space to have relationships with other women can be healing in and of itself. For those who do not observe religious segregation of the sexes, we can support each other as a community of dancers, without regard to each other's gender, although as products of patriarchy femme folks may have special need of these spaces.

When it comes to improvisation, circularly, and the characteristics of raqs' movement vocabulary, these are not inherently feminine, but they do provide a space for us (regardless of our gender identity or expression) to celebrate and decouple things associated with femininity from the patriarchal label of weakness. These are also associated with somatic emotional healing modalities. During raqs, we connect with and balance our bodies as well as the emotions of the music. Many of us have also, through the pandemic and other social movements, come to realize that stoic individualism is a set up of burn out and the supposedly "feminine" quality of asking for help really makes us more powerful. If we exclude the more competitive performance arenas, raqs builds connection to, and through that connection, support from a community.

I was once knitting at the break table at a job, and was told by someone who wanted to train me for a promotion that "powerful women don't knit". Those of us who have practiced this dance know, it takes strength and softness in equal measure. Neither of these belongs exclusively to men or women. Add to that the performer's trappings of chiffon and sequins and to my mind, that makes raqs an excellent proof that "girly" things are powerful, and can provide a doorway for folks of any gender to access, heal, and appreciate those things we've been taught to shun, denigrate, or repress.

Now, I still don't personally enjoy magenta or neon pink, but allowing myself to enjoy rose gold, dusty rose, and sugar pink is one little piece of how I am working on healing that internalized misogyny. I can get out my power tools and build a pergola without it making me less feminine, and I can plant blousy pink roses on it without it meaning I am any less powerful or capable. To be strong, we do not need to flip tires and push iron; although we can do that too, strength can also mean a gentle floorwork routine, or an expressive shimmy.

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