Play seeks to smash social taboos

2010-07-20 11:01

He wants to have phone sex, she wants to leave her house without a headscarf: a Cairo play seeks to confront Egypt’s social taboos by laying bare the sexual frustrations and harassments that beset daily life.

In a makeshift theatre set up in the cafeteria of the Cairo Opera House, a group of amateur actors perform short sketches based on real-life experiences and inspired by Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.

A sign held by Sondos Shabayek, one of the play’s producers, before the performance begins, reads: “Everything you will see tonight is nothing compared to the reality.”

The play is a product of the Bussy Project – Bussy means “look” in colloquial Egyptian – a student-run organisation set up in 2006 at the American University in Cairo (AUC) which seeks to raise awareness about women’s issues in Egypt.

This year, Bussy left its crib at AUC for the first time hoping a different venue would show a wider audience “what is really happening out there,” an organiser said.

Over the past five years, the student organisation has sought to push the boundaries by addressing highly sensitive issues such as circumcision, rape, paedophilia and sexual harassment through lectures, awareness campaigns and an annual play.

This year’s performance portrays a hypocritical and patriarchal society where outward religiosity conceals shameful secrets.

In one sketch, a pious young man presses his girlfriend to have telephone sex, arguing that “it is not haram (forbidden by Islam) since it is by phone”.

A downhearted young woman steps on the stage, frustrated at not being able to show off her locks in public.

She sighs, staring at her tight-trousered silhouette in the mirror: “Look how lovely my hair is! How I would love to leave my house without the hijab. But what would people say?”

The vast majority of Egyptian women don the Islamic headscarf in public, not by law, but rather due to social convention and/or pressure.

In another sketch entitled I’m not your darling, an actress complains of not being taken seriously at work simply because she is a woman.

She hates being regularly referred to as “honey” or “sweetheart” by her male colleagues.

Sexual harassment in public areas, described as a “social cancer” by one local non-governmental organisation, is addressed from a male point of view.

His rage simmering below the surface, one male character describes how he likes to “satisfy himself” in public transport by rubbing up and masturbating against women, a common phenomenon particularly on Cairo’s crammed buses.

He says: “I am not sick. And I am not the only one. I was a respectable person. But I earn $70 dollars (R533) per month, I will never be able to get married, what can I do?”

The play is more sanitised than originally intended, as several theatre venues refused to let it show on their stages.

Around 20 minutes of script were cut out “due to censorship and in order to avoid lawsuits later,” actress and producer Mona al-Shimi said.

She says: “We approached many places, the reasons for their rejection were varied but the most common one was that the topics were too sensitive.”

The audience had heckled the original version and some spectators stormed out in the middle of the performance. One of the scenes taken out had broached the subject of incest.

The actors decided to make a point of the censorship: they mimed the passages they were not allowed to say out loud.

But the play found a fan in Egyptian mega-filmstar Khaled Abul Naga who attended one performance and vowed to support the theatre group’s message.

He says: “They deserve to have their play project properly produced, recorded and preserved.”

“With the censored parts left in?” interrupts one of the actresses.

“With the censored parts left in,” he answers. 

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