Women rock the casbah

Loubna Haddad was at her home in Damascus, watching TV with her grandmother. Suddenly Elissa, a Lebanese pop star with inflated lips, shrunken outfits, and sultry looks, popped on the small screen and outraged the old woman.

Despite plenty of exaggerated wincing, Ms. Haddad says her grandmother, "didn't get up, but kept watching." For Haddad, a TV writer, this was no ordinary generation gap and no petty victory. In a part of the world that still restricts kisses and bed scenes in sitcoms, it was a major development.

Elissa is part of a crop of new female Arab singers to emerge in the last two years, most of them Lebanese. Their music videos bring them - via satellite - into millions of Arab homes, as they blow words of heartache over bare shoulders, writhe on beach sand, and stage trysts with mysterious men.

Some critics are responding with more than cringes. This summer, a rival singer accused Elissa - referred to by one magazine as "the artist of bed sheets" - of using sex to sell her songs. In September, members of the Egyptian Parliament proposed a ban on singer Nancy Ajram's videos. The controversy heated up last month when protesters in Bahrain tried to shut down a concert by the same performer, most famous for a song in which she flutters about an all-male cafe.

But more-liberal Arabs are deeply divided over the videos' long-term influence. On one end are those who, like Haddad, hope the videos will help erode conservative attitudes toward dress and sex. On the opposite end are those who see yet another culprit that promotes women as physical objects. Beneath these different views lie mixed feelings about the benefits of Western influence on Arab culture.

To be sure, if it were simply hanging in a closet, Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe's notorious short and skintight red dress (which appears rain-soaked in one of her videos) would not be any cause for controversy. Beneath the hijab or at home, even traditional Muslim women are often bolder in their dress, wearing makeup in the house and removing it when they leave to run an errand, for example. And between husband and wife, conservative Muslims say, all sartorial boundaries crumble.

"[A wife] should wear what makes her husband happy," says one female Islamic law student at the University of Damascus who switches off music videos at the first sight of a shimmying hip. That philosophy may explain why lingerie stores are easier to find in downtown Damascus than are cafes.

Nor are bawdy depictions of women foreign to Arab culture. "One Thousand and One Nights," oral stories that date back centuries, feature plenty of sirens starring in sexual exploits. "It's not a new concept - the femme fatale - in Islamic society at all," says Anisa Al Amin Merhe, a psychoanalyst and a professor at the University of Lebanon in Beirut. "But," she adds, explaining the uproar surrounding the videos, "it's the first time you see it on TV [in the Arab world]."

Moreover, for many observers - directors, musicians, and viewers - while these new performers sing in Arabic and sometimes dance on desert sets to Arabic rhythms, the videos are for the most part a Western phenomenon. The quick shots, the suggestive moves, the pervasive green and blue hues, and the costumes are all American and European influenced.

"There is no Arabic culture in the new songs, bottom line. Just mute the sound, and you'll think [she] is a foreign singer," says Osama Said, a partner at Damascus production house ArtWare Media who has directed videos for Syrian artists.

The result, some say, is nothing more than bad imitation. Ultimately, for Mr. Said and others, Elissa's low-cut, form-fitting Christian Dior dress in her chart-topping video "Aayshalak" ("I live for you") doesn't reflect any kind of shift in attitude toward ideas about freedom or women's equality, but merely an eye for Western fashion.

"We take the tattoos, the long hair [from America], that's it," says Said. Indeed, for the University of Damascus student, sitting on a campus bench in an ankle-length trenchcoat and white headscarf, attempting to establish a link between clothing and freedom is a superficial endeavor.

It's just like MTV

What's missing, some say, is a really genuine Arab voice, such as lyrics that explore taboo topics and more storytelling, in place of haphazard shots of exposed arms and legs. But other critics say the videos have definitely affected public thinking. After all, they're everywhere, from Damascus cafes and restaurants to hotel lounges. The cumulative effect, they charge, is that women have been turned into commodities. It's a sentiment some religious leaders agree with.

Seated around a lunch table at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, Maya Yousef and twins Nadia and Hala Muhamna - members of an all-girl's classical music ensemble - offer vociferous protest. "[These music videos are] not about being openminded," says Nadia, whose trendy skirt and top would easily blend in on any American campus. "It's only about the body, about appearance.... [These videos] really affect the way men think about women. [They] focus men's attention on the body."

Al Amin Merhe takes a more sinister view. "It's a marriage between technology and tradition," she says in a phone interview from Beirut, Lebanon. Arab tradition, according to Dr. Merhe, already pressures a woman to play the seductress for her husband at home. Music videos only intensify that, offering plastic-surgery enhanced women as role models.

Catering to societal taboos

But perhaps the lack of readily available provocative images in the Middle East is partly responsible for such a marriage. One Lebanese music-video director (who didn't want to be named) says the new videos represent "male fantasies," and their popularity is the direct result of what he calls a repressed society.

TV writer Haddad and others hope that, at the very least, exposure to suggestive videos might curb male ogling on the street. As it is now, she says she keeps her outfits understated during the day, but adds, "If I had a car, maybe I'd change my style."

New role models

Public reactions, from both men and women, are the major reason why a group of male high schoolers hanging out in Damascus's hip Shaalan district say they would never want their sisters seen looking like Elissa. They all admit readily to watching her videos, though some say they wait for their parents to leave or they go to a friend's house. Not that there is anything wrong with her choice of garments, explains Najd Sheikh, who sports a small earring, "but you need the people in the street to understand that."

Yet another interpretation of the music videos says that they offer images of strong and independent Arab women willing to make unabashed declarations of desire.

"These stars are very emboldened by their position ... they are really powerful women. They dictate contract terms, they have a lot of say in programming, they are seen as unattainable women, beyond reach," says Ramez Maluf, director of the Beirut Institute for Media.

Nadine Labaki, who has directed Nancy Ajram's videos, including one release set in a 1940s all-male cafe, sees herself as trying to depict women who defy the stereotype of the docile and modest wife or girlfriend. Much has been made about a scene in the video in which Nancy dances up to two men in the middle of an arm-wrestling contest, instigates a brawl, then saunters away. Viewers were shocked more by her bold and courageous acts than by anything she was wearing, says Ms. Labaki. "Women here are not very free with their body, they're very self-conscious. I'm trying to change our point of view ... to show women with character."

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