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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Men Cross Dressing as Women in Middle Eastern Performing Arts


by Shira





When most people hear the term "Middle Eastern dance" they think of sexy women in skimpy costumes glittering with beads and sequins. But over the years, there have been an interesting number of situations in which men dress as women for dance performances, comedy pieces, and acting roles. This article will take you on a tour through Egypt, Turkey, and Morocco to explore this side of the history of Middle Eastern performing arts.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo from the late 19th century is titled "Köçek With a Tambourine". It's unclear whether the photo was taken in Turkey (where the köçekler were banned in 1937), or somewhere outside of Turkey.




The Moroccan Shikhatt

The shikhatt is a Moroccan women's dance which was traditionally performed at the women-only wedding celebrations. From there, it developed into a social dance that women enjoyed for other social occasions as well.

In traditional Muslim culture, men and women lived segregated lives. People didn't socialize with the opposite sex outside of the immediate family. When family occasions such as weddings, circumcisions, and other festive events occurred, the men would gather for a men-only party, while the women gathered separately for a women-only party. Living quarters of houses were segregated too: men would entertain other men on the public (men's) side of the house, and women would entertain women on the private (family) side of the house.

The original purpose of the shikhatt was to provide sex education to the bride. This dance is distinctly different from belly dancing. At the women-only party before the wedding, the bride would sit on a "throne" dressed in her finery while a woman known as the sheikha would lead the female party goers in dancing the shikhatt for her. In some cases, after performing at the women's party the sheikha might take her ensemble to perform for the men as well.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: A male dancer at Jmaa al-Fna square in Morocco performs.

Male Shikhatt Dancer

In time, men too began to learn to dance the shikhatt. In fact, many men have also become professionals at performing it. They generally present it in drag, or at the very least in a woman's caftan and d'fina, due to the feminine origin of this dance.

Shikhatt dancers, regardless of gender, sometimes balanced a tray on their heads with candles, tea glasses, and a silver teapot in the center. They would often include some floor work. Years ago, a man named Lahsen achieved fame as one of the top male tray and shikhatt dancers in Morocco.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: A male dancer at Jmaa al-Fna square in Morocco performs.

Male Dancer



The Turkish Köçekler

From the 17th through the early 19th centuries, the köçekler (singular köçek) of Istanbul were popular performers of Oriental dance in the coffee houses. These were young men, clad in clothing that resembled women's garments in many ways. There were some differences from women's fashion such as their short hair and the caps they wore on their heads.

The köçek troupes included not only the dancers, but also singers and orchestras. As of 1805, there were approximately 600 of these dancers in Istanbul.

The köçekler were particularly popular among the Turkish military, the Janissaries. Often, fights would break out in the coffee houses among the Janissaries over the favors of the young men. At last, Sultan Mahmud tired of the constant disruption and banished the köçekler from Turkey in 1837.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This 1720 drawing shows kocheks in Turkey at a party celebrating the circumcision of a son of Sultan Ahmed. The drawing comes from the Surname-i Vehbi, Topkapı Palace, Istanbul.




19th Century Egypt: Filling the Void

In the early 1800's, Europeans were bringing "modernization" to Egypt. At the time, Egypt was ruled by the powerful Mohamed Ali, who was eager to accept European assistance in building factories and developing a military force. He actually wasn't Egyptian — he had come to Egypt as an Ottoman military leader and was originally from Albania, a European country. The Europeans who worked on these projects sought local entertainment, and to them the dancers represented a sort of barbaric exotica. The dancers who performed in public for these men were the Ghawazee.

At that time, there were no nightclubs or other businesses dedicated to the purpose of providing public entertainment, so the dancers would perform in the street for patrons who were willing to pay. The upper classes were not pleased with the condescending attitude that these Europeans took toward their culture. In 1834 Mohamed Ali decided to ban the embarrassing Ghawazee from Cairo, and exiled them to outlying towns in the south.

The exile of these women left a void, which was quickly filled. Young men and boys impersonated women, cross dressing in clothes that were mostly female. In many cases they embellished the original women's dance with acrobatics and explicit sexually-oriented movements. These boys became known in Egypt as khawals.

Because the Europeans expected to see women, and because the clothing worn by the khawals resembled women's garments, many times the Europeans believed they were watching women — until they caught a glimpse of week-old beard!

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This historic postcard dates before 1907. Its caption, which is in French, says, "Number 83 - Egypt - Khawal" on the first line, and then "Eccentric male dancer, dressed as a female dancer" on the second line.




Gender Humor in Egypt's Golden Era

During Egypt's Golden Era, the variety shows presented in the nightclubs included short plays (usually musical comedies), as well as comedy monologues that often included some amount of singing and dance. The shows would also include singers, raqs sharqi dancers, dancers of non-Egyptian genres, acrobats, and other entertainers.

Advertisements from the time tell us that these shows sometimes featured female impersonators and humor centered around gender confusion.

Here are examples of ads featuring such entertainers:

Chokehold Flyer



In North America Today

Since the 1970's, men have entered the ranks of Oriental dance artists in North America. Some are gay, some straight. Because the stereotype of a "belly dancer" is that of a sensuous woman, people are generally quite intrigued by male and genderfluid dancers.

Most male dancers opt to appear in masculine-looking costumes — sometimes folkloric such as a gallabiya, other times more of a glittery nightclub look but still decidedly male.

Others adopt a more androgynous look, which looks believable on either men or women. For example, they might wear shoulder-to-floor length tunics over pantaloons, topped with coin belts or hip scarves.

John Compton (shown in the photo to the right) was an example of a man who embraced the androgynous look. He said in an interview that when he originally approached Jamila Salimpour in the 1970's about taking belly dance classes, she said the only way she would accept him as a student would be if he dressed as a woman, like a male Moroccan shikhatt dancer. John agreed, and this established a persona that he continued throughout his career. For several years, John performed his belly dance act in the famous drag shows at Finnochio's in San Francisco.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of John Compton by Rosemary Guglielmelli, aka, on Facebook as "Faire Faces by Rosemary".

In still another group of modern-day male dancers in North America, a small minority like to dance in full drag, wearing the same beaded and sequined bra/belt/skirt styles that characterize the women's nightclub look.

John Compton



Closing Thoughts

Don't let this article lead you to believe that all male dancers in the Middle East were cross-dressers — I simply chose to focus for this article on this little-known minority group within the male dance traditions of the region. Shira



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