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Egypt's Morality Crackdown Targets Female Dancers

In an online video, Suha Mohamed Ali — known as Egypt's Shakira — is dressed in a schoolgirl uniform and shaking her hips. She dips low and sings and dances suggestively with vegetables. "If you want hot pepper," she sings, "I'll buy it ground."

In another video, Dalia Kamal Youssef, known as Pardis, dances with a squeegee. She's wearing gaudy, revealing outfits as she sings about wanting a man.

The videos are definitely tacky; some would say tasteless. In Egypt, they're also criminal. Both women were recently sentenced to six months in jail for inciting debauchery.

Their sentences aren't unique. Human rights researchers say Egypt's morality police have been working in overdrive for the past two years. Hundreds of gay and transgender people had been targeted and arrested by the state before the campaign recently widened to include dancers, accused of inciting debauchery or prostitution.

The morality crackdown has come after the ouster in 2013 of an Islamist government by a military-backed state. "It is a battle of who is the representative of real Islam," said Dalia Abd El-Hameed, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights group.

Abd El-Hameed says she's tracked more than 200 cases of people accused of being gay and arrested for debauchery or similar charges by morality police since 2013. She says it's a disturbing pattern. Police "would target gays and transgender people in some cases, and then after that, they would turn to dancers and dancers-slash-prostitutes," she says. "They would always, whether they are dancers, whether they are trans or gays, they would always be accused of prostitution or debauchery, you know."

Shakira and Pardis aren't the only women whose dance moves have recently landed them in jail. Another dancer was imprisoned for performing in an outfit made from the Egyptian flag. Yet another was jailed for the low-cut, short dresses she wore as she shimmied and sang about male gropers.

The surprising part of this is that the uptick in morality cases started after the ouster of Egypt's first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood. He was accused of trying to take the state backward and of supporting extremism, and is now on death row in an Egyptian prison.

Abd El Hameed says the military-backed government of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is trying to prove it is the real guardian of morality and Islam — not the ousted Islamists in the Brotherhood or extremists in militant groups like ISIS.

"What we discovered is that this is a continuous attempt to create moral panic," she says.

The state is using all its weapons to push the agenda. The religious affairs ministry issues statements saying Egypt won't accept perversion and that morality will be protected. State-aligned media are hyping coverage of sex scandals and so-called morality cases.

And recently, the Egyptian musicians syndicate implemented a dress code for female singers, banning "revealing clothing."

Khaled Bayoumi, a singer and member of the union, says the syndicate is just implementing longstanding rules. He says the rules are there to "protect" artists, citing an example of a Lebanese singer who was harassed at a concert in Egypt because of her skimpy outfit.

"Egypt is the Hollywood of the Middle East," he says. "It is the center of music and film. And it's the syndicate's responsibility to protect it from being cheapened. "

Then he breaks into song. His music, he says, is an example of that classic Egyptian art.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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