When the legendary Umm Kulthum began her singing career, she disguised herself as a bedouin boy.
While biographers have said this costume was donned in fear of her father's wrath, it also existed within a popular Egyptian trend of the day. Young women often dressed and performed as men while young men dressed and performed as women. Today, we might call it drag.
Within the world of performance and theater, as often remains the case today, an individual's gender has much less to do with who they are on stage than their physical appearance and how it could be manipulated does.
Historians trace the cross-dressing trend within the Middle East and North Africa back to the height of the Ottoman Empire, with Kocek (boys who danced and sang in female dress) and Cengi (girls who did the same in male dress) dating back to at least the 16th century.
Cross-dressing became trendy among Egyptian women
This trend didn't remain only within the realm of night time entertainment. In fact, middle-class Egyptian women dressing as men became such a common trend, newspapers and magazines wrote numerous articles about the "masculine woman" in the mid-1920s.
This trend increased, according to historian Dr. Lucie Ryzova, in the proceeding decades, with middle-class girls routinely posing for photos dressed in a boyish manner and surrounded by objects traditionally associated with men.
As feminism and women's liberations movements took hold around the world and within the region, many women began taking on these traditionally masculine styles in an effort to be seen as equal to men. As the 20th century moved forward, cross-dressing began to take a prominent role within Arab cinema as well.
Cross-dressing in Arab cinema
Ali Al Kassar was the first Egyptian actor to play the role of a woman in an Arab film. Back in 1920, the popular actor was the lead character in the Egyptian short movie Al Khala Al Amrikiya (The American Aunt), which was a copy of the American play (Charly’s Aunt). The main character, who was played by Al Kassar, had to dress up as his friend’s aunt to save him.
Later in 1954, the legendary Mahmoud Yassine played the role of a woman in a movie titled El-Anisa Hanafi (Mrs. Hanafi). Three years later, the actor played the role of a woman called Zakiya, who undergoes a sex reassignment surgery after everyone notices that she acts like a man. The movie titled El-Sit Nawaem discusses many issues, but the issue pertaining to women who dressed like men suggests that society was perhaps more accepting back then.
Cross-dressing in Egyptian cinema since then became a source of entertainment. Whenever an Egyptian actor performed as a woman, the movie would be directly labeled as “funny”.
After Yasine, Sokkar Hanem was released in 1960 with Abdel Menem Ibrahim playing the role of a woman named "Sokkar". Since then, several Egyptian actors have played the role of women including Adel Imam, Samir Ghanem, Abdel Menem Ibrahim, Sami el Adel and many more.
Egyptian cinema until today includes cross-dressing characters such as "Khala Noussa" by Mohammad Hinadi, and "Hajja Atata" by Mohamad Saad. Alaa Wali Eldin played the role of two women in the same movie, and he was the lead (male) character at the same time.
With the increased visibility of the trans community in the region, Hanan Al Tawil was the first openly transsexual Arab woman to start acting in 1999. She played multiple roles including "El Sit Korea" in the famous comedy Askar fi El Moaskar.
Many male comedians in the Middle East have also created female characters inspired by everyday women. Some of the region's most successful stand-up characters were men playing the role of a woman. An example of these characters is "Marioka," a Lebanese prostitute played by the Lebanese comedian Mario Bassil, "Em Georgette," an Armenian old lady played by Pierre Chamasian and the famous "Fadia El Sherreka" played by Fadi Raidy.
Arab drag queens
Outside of the realm of cinema and television, Arab men perform in drag with Lebanon's Bassem Feghali standing out as one of the most prominent within the region.
Through recreating legendary singers such as Sabah and Fairouz, as well as modern divas including Haifa Wehbe, Elissa and Nancy Ajram, Feghali uses his performance to make audiences laugh while also subtly challenging societal notions of gender.
Similarly, the Iraqi-British actor and performer Amrou Al-Kadhi has turned to drag, saying that while it allowed him to runaway from the restrictive confines of his conservative upbringing, it also helped him reconnect with the memory of his Egyptian-Iraqi mother. He now utilizes Middle Eastern themes in his work, crediting his mother as his earliest inspiration.
While cross-dressing, drag and fluid gender identities may remain taboo throughout much of the Arab world, it's undeniable that these are realities that have been an integral part of Arab society, culture, and entertainment for well over 100 years.