In the spring of 2020, I finished writing Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt's Roaring '20s, a group biography of the powerful and independent women who defined an era in Egypt's capital. The submission of the manuscript coincided with the beginning of a crackdown on several social media stars in Egypt, young women who became known as the "TikTok girls." Egyptian authorities claimed that these young women and their videos were violating "public morals" and "family values." Two of them in particular, Haneen Hossam and Mawada al-Adham, have spent a hellish year being dragged through Egypt's courts. In the latest installment of their saga, they were given extremely harsh sentences by a criminal court last month: Hossam, who is 20 year old, was sentenced to 10 years in jail, and al-Adham, who is 23, was sentenced to six years. Both were also fined 20,000 EGP (about $1,275).
It has sometimes been hard, amid all the charges leveled against these Egyptian women, to figure out exactly what they are supposed to have done wrong. The most tangible accusation—though it also strains credulity—is that by encouraging their followers to join another popular social media platform, Likee, and use it to make money, they have been engaging in a form of "human trafficking."
But their cases and the coverage surrounding them have been dominated much more by intangible concepts like "public morality," "family values," and "debauchery." These charges are harder to categorize. It often feels that it is the mere existence of young women posting intimate, sometimes mildly sexualized videos of themselves lip-synching and dancing to pop music that is so offensive to the authorities in Egypt. Two young people having fun on TikTok, like millions of others around the world, have suddenly been forced to carry the burden of an entire nation's so-called "morality."
As these stories have been in the news in Egypt, I have been immersed in the lives of some different Egyptian women, who lived a hundred years ago: the singers, dancers, actresses and cabaret owners of Cairo's interwar nightlife. The more you read the women's stories from a previous age, the more striking the parallels become between them and the "TikTok girls." Looking at their lives can help us understand this strangely nebulous concept of "public morality" in Egypt, and how it is wielded against women.
There is a widespread impression that Egyptian women in the 1920s had more apparent "freedom"—another potentially nebulous concept—than they do now. Looking at pictures of women in revealing stage clothing or a can-can line, many people have started to romanticize the interwar years in Cairo, when Egypt was a diverse melting pot but still under British imperial influence, as a time of extreme permissiveness. But any close examination of the period reveals that it is not that simple. Not only did women in Egypt in the 1920s have many fewer political rights than they do now—the right to vote is the most obvious—they were also coming up against the same poorly defined barriers of "public morality" that Egypt's young TikTok stars have in this decade.
There are countless examples in interwar Cairo of female performers being accused of violating "morality." Actresses were often called prostitutes; dancers were seen as corruptors of the country's youth. In the 1920s, "belly dancing" was banned from Cairo's nightclubs, and one nightclub was temporarily closed and given a fine for putting on a "belly dancing" show that "violated public morals." Many of these accusations a century ago were worded in almost exactly the same way as the charges against Haneen Hossam and Mawada al-Adham, specifically referencing "customs," "values," and "morality."
Then, as now, it was women who were seen as the embodiment of Egypt's national virtue. Men's antics were largely ignored or excused, but women could hardly move without somebody taking issue. Even off-stage, they were scrutinized. One Egyptian newspaper article in the late 1930s reported that dancers from Cairo's nightclubs had taken to hanging out in the cafés in the city's al-Hussein district after their shows. Apparently the "office for the protection of morals" deemed the simple presence of dancers in this part of the city—which is also home to al-Azhar mosque and university, among other mosques and religious sites—a dangerous prospect. So much so that they were banned entirely from sitting in the cafés in the area, which al-Ahram newspaper described as having a particular "religious character."
It was not just minor figures from Cairo's then-flourishing music, theater, film and cabaret scene who had problems. Some of the women who are now considered the biggest stars of the 1920s were also frequently the targets of moralizing criticism. In 1925, the actress Rose al-Youssef set up one of the most popular magazines of the interwar years, named Rose al-Youssef after its founding editor. The magazine later grew into an empire that included a respectable newspaper and publishing house that is still active today. But while she was beginning her career, al-Youssef was also the target of censorious attacks. She started out as the female star of a theater troupe that was trying to introduce French farce and vaudeville, in Arabic translation, to an Egyptian audience. As she was gaining popularity, one anonymous woman wrote a letter to the press that, in addition to comparing music hall performers to prostitutes, argued against putting on French vaudeville plays by appealing to a concept of morality that is familiar from today's TikTok case. "The French and Egyptians are different," she said. "We have our customs and morals here, and they have different ones over there."
Mounira al-Mahdiyya, a singer and actress who was another one of the great female stars of 1920s Cairo, was also accused of "corrupting our morals and spreading vice." As women like her and Rose al-Youssef have since acquired legendary cultural status in Egypt and beyond, their rough edges have been smoothed over, and it has largely been forgotten how controversial they were in their time. Yet they were attacked over the very same vague accusations of violating "public morals" now used against Haneen Hossam, Mawada al-Adham and other young women on TikTok.
What does all this reveal, then, about Egypt? The country is hardly alone in forcing women into being representatives and embodiments of some murky "public morality." Invariably, this morality means sexual morality, and any perceived "excesses" of female sexuality are taken as a proof of a corrupt society. This was a pervasive view in Egypt in the 1920s, despite the vibrant cultural scene in Cairo, and it still is today.
More than any differences, it is the similarities across a century that are most striking, in the banal unimaginativeness of patriarchy. Although every moral panic is based on a belief that the decadence of the current moment is worse than any other, they all end up looking very similar. It is a set pattern. A new form of entertainment becomes popular—whether it be French vaudeville, cabaret, or a new social media platform—and people worry that women are using it to corrupt "public morals."
Today, Haneen Hossam and Mawada al-Adham are caught in a familiar cycle in Egypt, although the severity of the punishments that they have received are indeed different. In the 1920s in Cairo, no nightclub dancers were ever given 10-year jail sentences. It is unclear just where this saga will end. Will people look back on them in a hundred years like they do on Rose al-Youssef and Mounira al-Mahdiyya now, as bold pioneers? Or will they be ground down by their persecution? One thing is certain: While they are accused of violating traditional values, like the women of 1920s Cairo were before them, Hossam and al-Adham today are unwilling participants in a struggle that is all too "traditional"—a campaign waged against women by self-proclaimed guardians of morality.