Home / Blog / The Harlem Shakeup: What the Harlem Shake Means for Women in the Arab World

The Harlem Shakeup: What the Harlem Shake Means for Women in the Arab World

By Tara S Riggs.

The Harlem Shake has swept the world by storm, spreading from college and high school campuses to the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, Eygpt. The content of the 30-second video is a provocative dance to the song “Harlem Shake” by Baauer (which hardly anyone has heard in its entirety). Most of these videos have been made for fun or publicity, but for many women in Egypt and other nations of the Arab World, these videos are a way to protest gender inequality. Protests after the Arab Spring revolutions have settled down but continue to be just as meaningful as their predecessors. I believe the Harlem Shake videos in Egypt, however, may accomplish in some ways an even larger goal.

Women around the world are constantly disadvantaged in many aspects of life. This holds true as well for women in the Arab world as they tend to have fewer rights than their male counterparts. The 2011 revolution saw men and women protesting for their rights together, but women’s rights have not been fundamentally addressed until now. The Harlem shake videos speak directly against these ideas. Women dancing in a provocative nature outside the Cairo headquarters are a direct and firm statement: women are no longer willing to hide.

Furthermore, The Harlem Shake has inspired Iranian women abroad recently to take the street topless to protest Iranian hijab policies, standing in public with the slogan “my nudity, my protest” painted accross their backs and, or chests. Hijab protests occurring in Sweden, Ukraine and France have been dedicated to International Women’s Day (March 8) and to protest the “Islamization of Egypt and the introduction of Sharia Law under Mohammed Morsi” (rt.com), Sharia law** being the religious law and moral code of Islam.

Topless protests and provocative dancing are just the first stages of a woman’s revolution in the Middle East. Shereen El Feki’s new book “Sex and the Citadel” explores the rights and role of women in the Arab world and concludes that women have a long journey ahead of them in countries where a women’s virginity is still considered a prize and where women are expected to preserve their chastity until marriage. Women in the Arab world are often still seen as inferior to men.

What do these protests actually mean for women? It is hard to tell. On one hand, people are paying attention. International media has picked up these well-coordinated events but they may not affect actual policy decisions and social opinions. In countries where women blame themselves for being raped if they aren’t dressed modestly (by their own standards, not by the standards of the United States), it is clear social constructions on gender that will need to be addressed before women and men are looked upon by society as equal. The good news is that the protests in Cairo and across the globe by Egyptian and Iranian women are already (Harlem) shaking up debates in equality and the role of women in the Arab world.


**As with any religious tenets, Sharia Law is applied in a wide variety of ways in practice, which leads to its numerous interpretations.


Check out these sources to read more about the continued efforts to promote women’s rights:

The Globe and Mail- The Harlem Shake and a simmering Arab sexual revolution

RT- Female Iranian communists organize topless protest against hijabs in Swedish capital 

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