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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 August 2005, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK
Sexy stars push limits in Egypt
By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Cairo

As part of a series on young people in the Middle East, the BBC News website looks at how increasingly raunchy female singers have caused controversy in Egypt.

Egyptian pop singer Ruby
Ruby is one of the most talked about female pop stars in Egypt
Glamorous and smouldering, a gyrating singer pouts from the screen as a catchy Arabic pop song blasts from the TV speakers.

Music videos - or "video clips" as they are known - are the visual wallpaper of choice in the cafes, shops and discos frequented by Egypt's young people.

And as popular female stars reveal more and more flesh, controversy has inevitably grown in Egypt's mainly Muslim society.


Ruby is one of the most-talked about performers. She is Egyptian, rather than from more liberal Lebanon like many current stars. Her raunchy moves, bare midriff and revealing clothing have had conservative MPs clamouring for a ban.

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Raphael, 25, is a fan: "I like Ruby. She dances like there ain't nobody watching. She doesn't care about the camera, she's just out there dancing," he says.

But many other young people, both male and female, say she is pushing it too far. Ahmed Esmat, 17, says she is "mis-using her body".

"If the video clip doesn't have some kind of strip dancing it won't get popular - but not every one likes to watch this.

"When a couple of friends discuss the clips, they watch and enjoy them, but then they start to say: 'This not singing - it's covered up pornography.'"

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Ruby's producer Sherif Sabri is well used to this debate. He says Ruby's video clips are "artistic, tasteful and rhythmic".

"Sexual is a good word, but I would say really it's more sensual," he says.

He says it is other artists, not Ruby, who are pushing social boundaries: "I think she started a trend, which has not been followed correctly. I definitely don't agree with the way some imitate these videos. A lot of it is very vulgar."

'Reflecting change'

Egyptian culture was relatively liberal in the 1970s but swung towards conservatism in the 1990s - although there are now signs of a counter swing.

While daring young women a generation ago wore miniskirts, now tight T-shirts and low-waisted jeans are considered adventurous.

English Literature student Injie Swailam, 19, says stars like Ruby are wrongly blamed for the growing liberalism.

Sexual is a good word, but I would say really it's more sensual
Sherif Sabri, Ruby's producer
"I love Ruby. She's reflecting how our culture is now changing. Our community is a closed community, but now people are starting to wear really tight stuff - and they are going out to nightclubs.

"When society sees someone saying the truth, people don't want to admit the change," she says.

Music videos have been popular in the Arab world for years.

But with the recent explosion in satellite television stations across the Middle East, their influence has increased dramatically. Stars used to make video clips - now video clips make stars.

The clips' popularity among the young has triggered much social introspection.

'Free relationships'

Mohammed Ajami, 30, is an assistant university lecturer in English. He says the stars' clothing and dance styles "spread like fire" among his students.

"They memorise the lyrics by heart, and they forget about anything else. Their culture is a mixture of bad influences that lead them away from Islam.

Injie Swailam, English Literature student, 19
I love Ruby - she's reflecting how our culture is now changing
Injie Swailam, student, 19
"They have no dreams except feeding these kinds of instincts or living like their fellows in the West," he says.

"They gain the bad things from the Western culture - like free relationships between men and women," he says.

Amal Abdul Hadi, a feminist activist at the New Women's Foundation, sees the trend partly as a reaction to political marginalisation.

"I think they want to affiliate to something - to express themselves, but within a situation where expressing yourself politically is nearly closed."

She also considers it a reaction to the conservative climate - but an unhealthy one.

"I don't agree that commodifying and objectifying women's bodies is better than conservatism. I can't compare between the two evils. I personally think it's also creating a backlash - a reactionary reflex."

'Take-away sandwiches'

Questions of Westernisation and Arab identity also come up. Injie comments that boys now like Ruby with her dark hair and Egyptian features, whereas Western, often blonde, women have long been high on the list of objects of desire.

Mohammed Selim, 27, works on Cairo listings publication
I think we are very, very bored of everything that's being produced - we want something new
Mohammed Selim, 27
Raphael says he thinks Middle Eastern women are "the most beautiful on the planet".

"I think they want to prove to the world that they can do these things - it's not about singing, it's about Westernising," he says.

And while Mohammed Ajami says Western culture plays a strong role, he does not blame it: "The West just offered us this as a product and we naively bought it."

However, while Ruby, Lebanon's Nancy Ajram and similar singers tend to be popular with teenagers, several young people in their twenties express frustration at the video clip explosion.

"These things are like take-away sandwiches," says Mohammed Selim, 27, who follows Egypt's underground music scene in his work for a Cairo events publication.

"I think we are very, very bored of everything that's being produced - music, literature and politics," he says. "It's like eating food which is half-chewed. We want to experiment - we want something new."

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The following comments reflect the balance of views received.

I have just bought a compilation of Arab music videos and loved them. The music is fresh and the videos are extremely well made. What comes out from this is that Arab women are certainly very beautiful and are a credit to themselves. I don't think they have to get any racier, like the often vulgar and incredibly boring girls in rap and hip hop videos. I just hope that the trend continues but in a manner that can be of good taste and where the true virtues and beauty of the Arab woman are not degraded.
Ken Mugridge, Acitreale, Italy

Omani nightclubs consist of four of five young women dancing on a small stage surrounded by tables. They are fully clad in brightly coloured, figure hugging dresses. They entertain the male crowd, who adorn them with costume-jewellery through a designated waiter. The music is piercingly loud Arabic pop, and the only ones dancing are the ones who are paid to do so. On Muscat's streets, the billboards aren't covered in alluring material. Sex doesn't sell here: women cover themselves for the sense of decency that gives them. A male friend once wore shorts to the market, and was laughed at by the fruit stall holders: "Can't he afford long trousers?" they mocked.
Mike, Geneva, Switzerland

I'm an Egyptian living in Sheffield and travel back regularly. I've seen these pop videos get more and more pornographic over the years and it saddens me. We're copying the worst aspects of Western society, instead of getting rid of corruption and dictators, we want to turn our women into sexual objects and have "fun".
Omar, Sheffield, UK

It is sad to think that people in Egypt think that to have semi naked sensual women dancing to pop music is modern and forward thinking. What Egypt really needs is removal of a corrupt despotic regime, removal of corruption and a fair system of distributing wealth and opportunities for all. This is the miracle the west has to offer the Muslim World. We need to fight ignorance and poverty and that is the real modernism.
Mohammad Navid Anwar, Slough, UK

I personally watch Ruby's videos at least three times a week and I absolutely love them. I think she is brilliant. Her voice is nice, cheerful and passionate, and certainly I love the way she dances. I try to copy her moves all the time. The fact that the Egyptian society is not getting used to her is understandable. But what I really think is that no matter how much the Egyptian society criticises her, they still do like her songs and moves.
Raisa Kader, London, UK

The problem with Ruby et al is that the music is appalling and the video clips are so badly made they're embarrassing to watch. It's bubble gum pop repeated over and over again. If they want to push the boundaries, how about some creative experimentation rather than purely sexual? In the Arab world we are going through the same changes that pop music went through in the 80's in the West with the onset of MTV. Unfortunately not one single new sound or original idea has come out of it.
Samia, Kuwait

The Arabs culturally have been pulled in two different directions for the last 50years. On one side their religious (Islamic and Christian) background preaches modesty and conservatism and on the other are Western ideals which preach freedom and expression. The Arabs fear going through a cultural revolution like the West did in the 1960s but are tempted by the freedom such a revolution would give. Ideally we could retain our modesty and heritage while still gaining the freedom we crave.
Hassan El-Barbary, UK / Egypt / Sudan

Through terrorism, smog, traffic, heat, comes some fresh air...Ruby! She's great and makes one think hallelujah life is beautiful!
Ahmed Kamel, Cairo, Egypt

I adore Ruby, Nancy Agram and the other singers, the reason behind the anger of conservatives is that they deem everything haram (forbidden) thus dancing, singing and other arts are in their opinion unacceptable. My society has to be much more liberal and modernised.
Ismail Elnaggar, Cairo, Egypt

I think singers like Ruby are out to make money rather than trying to express "Western art". "Be Controversial then you will be famous" is a common and obvious trend in the Middle East.
Lena Dirbashi, Dallas, TX USA

As a Lebanese-American I have travelled quite frequently to Lebanon and have noticed extreme changes in the way young girls are dressing and acting. I am often asked by my American friends whether or not women in Lebanon must cover up their bodies. My answer? No way! Young Lebanese girls and women wear more revealing clothes than a beach bum from LA! Today plastic surgery is so popular in Beirut, it's almost like you are walking through a fashion show at all times. Lebanese women have also becomes obsessed with dyeing their hair blonde rather than keeping their natural, beautiful, dark colour. In any case, this "sexual revolution" has much room for growth in the Middle East especially in countries like Lebanon where the government is not as brainwashed by religion as other places in the region. As a matter of fact I encourage Arab women to revolt in such a way as an attempt to break current sexist standards.
Lily, USA

To be fashionable and deal with up to date entertainment things in life is a good thing but at the same time we have to pay more attention to education and being up to date in science. Most Middle East young people should learn entertain ourselves but also should study and work hard to survive in this rapidly growing world.
Yasser El-Sayed, Alexandria, Egypt

Yes, some video clips are becoming racier, some vulgar and some with good taste. I believe it's the right of the artist to express her/himself however way they want to and it's our right to switch the channel if we don't like it. On fashion in Egypt, even the hijab has an ultra modern twist. There is a rising trend among veiled girls to wear non-modest clothes, like tight tank tops, adding a plain long sleeved body underneath to cover up or a veil that is made of see through material¿ It's their choice but what was the purpose of hijab in the first place?
Soha Omar, Cairo, Egypt

Unfortunately, this article reflects the sad state that we have reached in terms of "liberalism." It's like we're caught in the middle; on one hand we have cultural boundaries that we have to stay within, and on the other hand, we like the Western way of living but for some reason, seem to only take the superficial styles. It's an issue of a cultural revolution rather than a single incident of Ruby and the likes.
Nahed Barakat, Cairo, Egypt

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