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Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 6.2 (2006) 78-92

Outrageous Behavior
Women's Public Performance in North Africa
Laura Chakravarty Box

Merriam-Webster defines the word "outrage" as, one: "an act of brutality or violence," two: "injury," "insult," or "an act that violates accepted standards of behavior or taste," and three: "the anger and resentment aroused by injury or insult." The word comes from the French outre, and the Latin ultra, meaning "beyond" (2005). 1 In this article I contend that outrageous behavior, as defined in Merriam-Webster's second entry—that which "violates accepted standards . . . or taste"—is a result of, and appropriate response to, outrages as delineated in Merriam-Webster's other definitions: injury, insult, brutality, and violence. By strategically employing the transforming powers of writing and performance, North African women of the theater, and the characters they create and perform, are committing outrageous acts that cause genuine social awareness and change.

One of the most striking, and risky, forms of dissidence that North African women dramatists employ is the choice to portray—or participate in—behavior that is considered outrageous by the societies in which they live. This can be as simple, and as profound, as the choice of whether or not to perform in public at all. It can, further, involve the deployment of complex textual and performance strategies designed to invite awareness and engagement on the part of the audience. North African women dramatists have, for over four decades, been writing and speaking unspeakable truths publicly, using the stage platforms and halqa performance circles of their societies as a liminal field of permission to incite conversations about issues exigent to them and to their audiences. This critical interpretation of their work considers literary and performance texts by women from Morocco, [End Page 78] Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt to analyze some of the strategies of dissidence they have chosen to employ and discusses the many risks they have taken in so doing.

The strategies enumerated here are by no means unique to North African woman artists, although they are deployed in culturally specific ways. They partake of a liberating and necessary hybridity. All of the plays and performances discussed are syncretic in nature, even those that have their origins in traditional forms. They make no claims to cultural purity or to authenticity, other than that of the individual voice. They are, however, productively outrageous and outraged responses to the insults and injuries of colonialism, neocolonialism, despotism, and patriarchal oppression.

This study of North African women's performance in the Maghreb began in the mid-1990s, and it resulted in a book that analyses twenty-eight authors or performance collectives and sixty-five plays and performance texts (Box 2005). This way of looking at the material—from the perspective of its outrage and outrageousness—represents a departure from the ways in which it has been categorized previously in the study. 2 "Behaving outrageously" has always been on the list of strategies of resistance found in the plays and performance texts that constitutes the bedrock of the analysis, but I have never before considered exactly why the strategy operates the way it does, or the extent to which the word "outrage" applies to this body of words.

Here is a short list of the ways in which North African female performers and writers, or the characters they write and play, have learned to behave outrageously: speaking, refusing to speak, saying no, singing and dancing in public, refusing to be seen in public, valuing of female audiences, exercising political agency, exercising economic agency, exercising mobility, becoming a criminal, becoming a prostitute, destroying life or property, cross-dressing, ridiculing authority, stepping out of one's place, learning to read or otherwise acquiring knowledge, writing or performing—particularly in fields dominated by men—valuing daughters, valuing female elders, and supporting other women, most especially in the face of difference.

This is the first time that Egypt has been included in the study, and, due to differences in the colonial history of Egypt in...


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