02 November 2010

Afghan female students carve out their own dance space at Halloween party in Kabul

Halloween, the American ritual with pagan origins tied to the agricultural harvest in northern Europe, was celebrated on the dance floor by young male college students, all Afghans, in costume dancing to a ear-pounding mix of techno tunes featuring traditional Persian and Pashtun rhythms. Global cultural hybridization was the subject of my lecture the following day.

KABUL, Afghanistan—Gendered relations here are endless fascinating, remarkably prescribed, and subject to obsessive and oppressive attention, but there was a rippled shift among students at the American university at a Halloween dance party over the weekend.

There had only been one other student dance on campus, when Kabul Dreams, an Afghan pop-rock trio, performed in the sterile school gymnasium in the spring. The males controlled the dance floor, as is custom, while the female students sat passively in chairs quietly watching, talking amongst themselves. At wedding celebrations, one of the few events attended by both sexes in Afghanistan, males dance in one room and females dance in another.

The first evidence of the change at the Halloween party was a roving cluster of females “hooting,” as one of them described it to me later, making noise and elevating their visibility. The “girls” soon decided it was okay for them to dance, and they did so in a way synchronous with local practice: they formed a tight semicircular wall of bodies against the concrete-block gym wall, creating a women’s-only space, which resisted even the male gaze, and they danced amongst themselves.

Watching the “boys” on the main floor, a student from Bamiyan, a remote and isolated province in the central highlands, asked me if the dance looked like an American one. “Well yes, but only if it were in a gay bar,” I explained.

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