Thursday, July 29, 2004

Belly-Button Window

This article explores, in an oddly offhand way, the tension between the sensuality of belly-dance -- a delicious, ancient, and characteristically Middle Eastern art -- and the prudish anti-sensuality of Islamist fundamentalism.

The topic of the article is the decision by Egypt's state-owned TV to ban music videos where women bare their belly-buttons. The decision was taken in the name of "their daughter's morals." Egypt is not a theocracy, but its government rides a tiger of fundamentalism, and knows how to throw the beast a bone from time to time.

So far, the article reports, 700 videos have been banned, mainly Lebanese productions (the "exuberantly nubile Lebanese singer Nancy Agram" is singled out in the article) but also some Egyptian ones (a local girl named Rubi has drawn the ire of Cairo's fundamentalists).

But lest we accuse Egypt of being alarmist or old-fashioned, it's worth noting that American television imposed a similar restriction in the midst of the permissive Sixties. Curiously, a sitcom inspired by the 1001 Nights elicited the navel ban. I Dream of Genie [sic] was a classic piece of sexist kitsch featuring a curvy actress wearing a jewelled bra and gauzy pants that started out as hip-huggers and ended up around her waist.

There are two problems with this (besides not knowing how to spell "Jeannie"). One is that America in the 1960s was gradually lowering its collective dress code. TV was the final frontier. It was a long slog from Audrey Hepburn to Goldie Hawn. The "permissive Sixties" didn't open with a starter's pistol at dawn on Jan. 1, 1960.

The Barbara Eden series (1965) came along right at the time when women's exposed navels in public were the frontier of the rising tide of sexual liberation. After her came the bizarre era of the "occasional navel" rule, whereby censors would allow a bare belly-button in one scene if the same girl, in another scene in the same outfit, had it covered (you can see that in old "Gilligan's Island" and "Star Trek" episodes). After that came Cher, and "Laugh-In," and the TV belly-button floodgates were open, never to close.

A belly-button is, as the observant anthropologist Desmond Morris has pointed out, a miniature image of vagina. John Updike published a perfect little short story in 1961 called "A&P," which is essentially about a young man who works in a stuffy grocery store at the shore when three girls walk in, one of them in a two-piece suit, and the sight and idea of her, and her boss's reaction to her (lack of) attire drives him into open teen-male rebellion. The girls on the covers of the mid-'60s "Playboys" sported provocatively bare bellies in their hiphugger stretch pants. If you've ever read anything about how the "Playboy" empire operates, you'll know that those covers are scrupulously constructed to be deliberate ideograms of sexual suggestion.

The other problem is that, while Barbara Eden couldn't show her navel in a prime-time TV show, she could, and did, show it in other contexts -- as a young bikini model (it's easy to forget, given how annoying she later became as a perennial Merv Griffen guest, that she was good fun back in the day). She could walk down the beach in a two-piece suit without having to worry about being accosted by religious freaks. In Egypt, since at least as far back as "I Dream of Jeannie," belly-dancers have been forbidden to bare their bellies and navels. Sheer or flesh-colored nylons are allowed, but no bare bellies on belly-dancers. And, according to the article, "Rubi the singing and dancing sex bomb, ... must endure the company of campus security guards while attending class."

Other cultures appreciate and have eroticized the female navel. In Japan, young women commonly pay $2,000 for navel-reconstruction surgery to get an ideal belly-button -- which in that culture is "vertical, very narrow, and absolutely symmetrical." The navel goes to the core of Japaneses culture, says author Hogen Fukunaga. "The navel is the core of everything about the person," Fukunaga wrote in a book about how a navel's shape can diagnose one's ills. Scholars write treatises on the navel, such as the recent "Poetic Reflection on the Navel."

Middle Eastern and Indian culture also respect the belly as a vital center, the place where we all first were connected to life, through the navel. Its importance is reflected in the ancient art and literature of the Middle East and South Asia, which placed great emphasis on women's bellies. In Arab countries, as in Japan, there is a navel aesthetic: A large, hollow navel is regarded as beautiful and is considered lucky.

Like its brother religion, Christianity (and to a lesser extent Judaism), Islam often takes a harsh view of sexuality, and of women's sexuality especially. It seems to associate overt celebration of female sexuality with Islam's ancient enemy, polytheism. Probably this is because old paganisms often were matriarchal at their core, and, as was the case with Christianity in Europe, the goddess rituals naturally proved the most difficult to co-opt or extinguish.

In ancient India, the yantra is a downward-pointing triangle, a sacred female image, and the strongest version of the symbol is the Kali yantra. It represents shakti: the life force, cosmic energy experienced as female. And there is a navel-like dot at the center space, called the bindo, or "seed of life." Likewise, an image of Astarte, the Near Eastern fertility and sexuality goddess, in gold from Syro-Palestine c.1600-1500 B.C.E. reduces the goddess to only a simple face, a sacred triangle, and a navel. Her name itself means "Womb" or "Belly;" in Hebrew, she was called "Tamar."

A navel is the symbolic focal point of the mazes and labyrinths that dot much of the ancient landscapes of the Mediterranean. Francis Huxley ("The Way of the Sacred," 1974) writes: "He who knows how to follow or make the diagram has his passport to the other world and resides in God -- or rather, because the maze honors women and the belly, the Goddess." Mazes and labyrinths were found in the palaces of Minoan Crete, the most goddess-centered of all the early cultures, and are engraved on their coins, with the entrance at the bottom, representing the vulva, and the seat of the goddess in the center, the navel. These mazes were not places to get lost, but rather pathways to journey through on the way to the ritual space.

There once was an omphalos, or "navel-shrine," where the prophetic priestess of the Earth Goddess dwelt at Delphi before patriarchal religion converted the place to the service of Apollo. So patriarchal a figure as Aeschylus recorded that Gaia was the first to be worshipped at Delphi, followed by her daughters Themis and Phoebe. Asherah, one Canaanite form of the Goddess worshipped by the early Hebrews, was a daughter of Astarte. Asherah had a shrine at Shechem, mentioned in the Old Testament, known as the "navel of the land," which has been compared to Delphi.

This part of a woman's body naturally was prominent in the ritual erotic dances that were part of her religion, and which have come down, much disguised and altered, in modern belly-dance. Even detached from its origins, the modern belly-dance embodies a heady eroticism that can transcend narrow cultural perceptions of age, physical beauty, and sensuality. But clearly these ancient belly-dances had originally a magical, mystical power. The poet Ram Prasad, addressing Kali, wrote, "My heart is five lotuses. You building these five into one, dance and swell in my mind." In Turkish, one of the words for "dance" is a variation of the word boyu, which means "magic, witchcraft."

In part, too, the Middle Eastern repression of belly-dance may reflect a jealous regard for women's sexuality in a culture where women are a sort of property, to be bartered between families and hidden in harems. In this case, it is not so much a matter of what a woman does in her body, but of not crossing the line between public and private. And a desexualized woman, obviously, is easier to control.

"Many and subtle are the forms of violence to which Egyptian women have grown inured," the article notes. "On the unsubtle side we have Mohammed Omar, columnist for the state-owned daily Al-Akhbar, who maintains that only ugly women attract abuse and every man '[has] the right to do what [abusive] men have done.' "

So we should recuse ourselves from judging the Egyptian situation as "alarmist or old-fashioned" (I'd call it harsher things) because of what happened on our TV screens in 1965. That strikes me as a shoddy attempt at pre-emptive moral equivalency.