Under the radar

[Karin El Minawi| DW]

Manar El Mokadem moves suggestively along the pole, climbing up and spinning down again, landing on her glass high heels. The class instructor climbs up the pole yet again and splits her legs in the air. The class applauds.

El Mokadem started exercising with pole dancing more than seven years ago. What started as a hobby became a full-time job when she opened Egypt’s first pole dance studio in Cairo in 2013, a courageous step in a conservative society where many people view the exercise as obscene and shameless. For El Mokadem, it is an expression of liberty — but more than that, it is a form of exercise that is gaining in popularity in the North African country, even if it usually takes place behind closed doors.

(At first, her parents were shocked.) "They worried about what the people might say."

— Manar El Mokadem

Social taboo

Egypt, with its more than 92 million inhabitants, is a country of extremes: poverty beside wealth, liberal and conservativeattitudes.

Belly dancing, which is as seductive and erotic as pole dancing and has been a part of Egyptian culture for centuries, is often frowned upon – but unfailingly, scantily clad belly dancers are part and parcel of wedding celebrations all over the country. At the same time, many Egyptians are wary of pole dancing, which is often associated with red light districts and prostitution — both unmentionable in mainstream Egypt.

El Mokadem is aware of the general perception, but that hasn’t stopped the 24-year-old from exercising through the sport she discovered as an architecture student in Britain. She opened Pole Fit Egypt, a pole dance studio for women, just months after her return home. At first, her parents were shocked. “They worried about what the people might say,” she said.

(They do not perform in public.) "The people think it's a regular fitness studio. We have firm rules."

— Manar El Mokadem

Dancer or doctor

Rihan Soliman, a 22-year-old medical student, said she started taking classes at Pole Dance Egypt two years ago. Her parents know about her passion since, after all, she had a pole installed in her room. What they don’t know yet, Soliman said, is that she’d rather be a dancer than a doctor. The young woman said she will finish her degree all the same — for her parents. “Pole dancing has made me more self-confident and more disciplined,” she said, adding that she has discovered a strength she never knew she had. It makes her feel “sexy, like a rock star” — something her parents would never understand or accept.

Egyptian society is staunchly conservative, even after the 2011 revolution that toppled the country’s longtime authoritarian ruler, Hosni Mubarak. Back then, women took to the streets in hopes of more rights, more political participation and, most of all, more freedom.