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In Mauritania, a Female Dance of Freedom

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Women preparing tea in Mauritania. Banja troupe members say dancing is perhaps the only outlet that offers them a sense of freedom
Women preparing tea in Mauritania. Banja troupe members say dancing is perhaps the only outlet that offers them a sense of freedomCredit: Michał Huniewicz

A large drum wrapped in leather on both sides, an empty oil jerrican or two, marvelous female voices, and wild and flexible dance movements are the hallmarks of the banja (or bunjee) dance practiced by the women of Mauritania. The fast and frenetic drumming of the women, dressed in large and colorful cloth that covers their entire bodies, dictates the rhythm of the dancing.

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The moves and music – which occasionally recalls hip-hop, sometimes rap – and the words (mostly in Arabic, but also in Berber) tell of everyday problems, the women’s numerous tasks, their love or hatred of their husbands and, occasionally, the status of women in this country dominated by the Sahara.

In their rare newspaper interviews, banja troupe members say dancing is perhaps the only outlet that offers them a sense of freedom. Such evenings take place in the homes of women; only females – usually over the age of 40 – are allowed to participate. Men are totally forbidden from taking part, even as spectators. 

“This is an evening of women’s dancing, for women,” one participant said recently, calling it “a liberating evening in which we can enjoy ourselves without male supervision.”

The phenomenon isn’t new but it’s not a standard folkloric event: It’s a feminist innovation that sharpens the talents of the women involved who write the music and the words. And they don’t just dance and sing at such evenings: They also exchange ideas and opinions, give and receive advice, and form new friendships.

It’s also a livelihood for some of the women. In exchange for organizing such an evening or composing music, the women are paid. Banja troupes also perform at weddings and other family celebrations, for which they receive between $90 and $120 per evening, depending on the number of singers participating.

People standing outside their home in a poor neighborhood of Nouakchott, Mauritania. The average per capita income is about $4,500.Credit: AP

Mauritania is a poor country. According to the International Monetary Fund, the average per capita income is about $4,500 a year in terms of purchasing power parity (compared to $37,000 in Israel). Some 20 percent of its 4.3 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, with half the workers making their living from agriculture. The authoritarian regime is led by President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who seized power in a 2008 coup and later won a national election in 2014. This is a traditional tribal society and, according to estimates, some 20 percent of its citizens are slaves.

Last month, British daily The Guardian published a photo essay on slave conditions in Mauritania. It described the terrible living conditions of men and women who are bonded to farm and home owners, and are not allowed to find an alternative source of income.

Although the country is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – according to which women should constitute 20 percent of the slate of candidates for elections in the cities and parliament, and children ages 6 to 14 should have access to education – Mauritania continues to apply Sharia (Islamic law) when it comes to the status of women and marital relations.

The official age for marriage is 18, but younger girls can be married off with parental consent; and women cannot transfer citizenship onto their children. The law also prohibits abortion, while female circumcision is a common phenomenon. Many girls drop out of school at age 12 in order to go out to work or to prepare for married life. And even if they complete high school and go on to university, many civil service positions are closed to them. In such a situation, the bemdjé dance parties have become an opportunity for release, enabling women to survive their difficult lives.

If in Mauritania women’s dances serve as a platform for protest and a form of release, the status of Muslim women’s dance groups in Egypt is totally different.

Some 25 years ago, a women’s group called Saba (Young Woman) erupted into the public sphere in Egypt, specializing in Arabic covers of familiar Western music. Today, there are at least 100 women’s dance groups in Egypt. Their members dress in a hijab (head scarf) and sometimes a niqab (a head covering where only the eyes can be seen).

As opposed to the women of Mauritania, the Egyptian dancers and singers accompany themselves on modern instruments such as electric guitars and keyboards; their clothing is shiny and glittery, their head covering bright red or other strong colors, and their hand movements are similar to those of rappers. But the content remains traditional and religious.

One of the ads for one group, Young Women of Islam, included the following message: “Your joy is sweeter when you obey God.” The band performs in halls, hotels and private homes, and at henna ceremonies, and the ad includes a picture of a young woman wearing a white niqab with her palms in a prayer position.

On the group’s Facebook page, its members are seen in luxury venues, some of them sporting smartphones. One Facebook user asked why there are no men in these groups. No answer has been given.

Such women’s groups have become fashionable at weddings of the wealthy religious classes, who consider belly dancing a terrible sin but approve of dancing by women who are covered. But at all of these performances, there is no criticism of the government or protest against the situation of Egyptian women.

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