In the oldest Arabic dictionary Kitab al-'Ayn the definition of khawal was a "servant" or "slave". Khawalat were acquired by unknown means, perhaps purchased as the spoils of war. However, they were different from classic slaves because the term did not necessarily imply ownership.
Following prohibitions on women dancing in public, cross-dressing boys and men took their place throughout the Middle East; in some Arab countries, these transvestite dancers were known as gawwal, and in Egypt, they were known by the related term khawal. The khawal imitated female ghawazi by dancing with castanet self accompaniment, painting their hands with henna, braiding their long hair, plucking their facial hair, wearing make-up, and adopting the manners of women.
As they impersonate women, their dances are exactly of the same description as those of the Ghawazee [female dancers] ... Their general appearance ... is more feminine than masculine: they suffer the hair of the head to grow long, and generally braid it, in the manner of women ... they imitate the women also in applying kohl and henna to their eyes and hands like women. In the streets, when not engaged in dancing, they often veil their faces; not from shame, but merely to affect the manners of women.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, they also commonly performed for foreign visitors, variously shocking or delighting them. The khawal were perceived as sexually available; their male audiences found their ambiguity seductive.
- Mohammed Ennaji (2013). Slavery, the State, and Islam. Cambridge University Press. p. 182.
- Judith Lynne Hanna (1988). Dance, Sex, and Gender: Signs of Identity, Dominance, Defiance, and Desire. University of Chicago Press. pp. 57–58. ISBN 9780226315515.
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- Mona L. Russell, ed. (2013). Middle East in Focus: Egypt. ABC-CLIO. p. 335. ISBN 9781598842340.
- Karin van Nieuwkerk (2010). A Trade like Any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt. University of Texas Press. p. 33. ISBN 9780292786806.
- George Haggerty, Bonnie Zimmerman, Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures (2003, ISBN 1135578710), page 952.
- Anthony Shay (2014). The Dangerous Lives of Public Performers: Dancing, Sex, and Entertainment in the Islamic World. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 160. ISBN 9781137432384.
- Human Rights Watch (2004). In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt's Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct. p. 6. ISBN 1564322963.