Both the East and the West are guilty of prejudice against each other and against their own citizens for not sticking to cultural norms. Yes, women in the States might have more freedoms in their choice of clothing, but there are still ideas that the way you dress reflects on your character. The girl walking down the street in a tube top and miniskirt will be perceived differently than the girl in slacks and a button-down shirt, for example. The veil itself if a source of polarization, if not antipathy in many places in the States. In a more nuanced way, Egyptian women can be judged on whether and how they wear the veil.
There are (on my count) 6 categories for women’s dress here, all along a continuum :
- unveiled, no concern for modesty, sometimes so defiantly western that they end up looking like ethnocentric caricatures of Western women: some of the tourists we saw in Cairo and in Ain el-Sokhna.
- veiled, but with immodest clothing, makeup and accessories: muhajaBabes
- unveiled, conservative dress: me; the older tourists; some liberal, westernized, highly-educated, or wealthy Muslims; and most Coptic Christians
- veiled and average clothing with many colors and patterns but still modest: the majority of women
- long veils between abdomen- and ankle-length, face visible: mostly older women
- covered up head-to-toe, nothing showing whatsoever: a very socially visible (though individually invisible) few
Egypt is about 90 percent Muslim, which means that most women in Alexandria who are out on the street are Muslim and most are muhajabaat, those who are veiled. In the past decade there has been an upswing of veiling even though in Egypt it is not required. I am often one of only a handful of women on the tram each day who does not cover up. It is easy to see how this garment, as a social habit, might alienate female Egyptians and Muslims who interpret the Quran differently, but also act as an equalizer for the women who do wear the veil. At least here there do not seem to be crackdowns on those who do not cover up completely, as there has been in other Arab countries, but there are obvious endorsements of the hijab as a sign of virtue and piety, such as graffiti at tram stops: “Thanks be to God that He led me to wear my veil” and even blunter points, like this advertisement:
“You can’t stop them, but you can protect yourself. He who created you knows what’s best for you.”
Even so, there are very wide interpretations on what it means to be muhajaba.
Some older women wear long veils that extend past their hips and minimal, if any makeup. Some women wear niqabs covering their noses and mouths that are usually black, but can be blue, purple, brown, green, or white, but are almost always relatively plain. Some women wear two pieces of alternating colors, one covering the head and body and another covering the face, while others stick with the single-piece garment. Some go as far as to wear black gloves and a skirt to cover their feet, but this is not the norm.
Most women opt for a colorful version of conservative dress, cleverly matching clothing that covers the proper areas to bright and patterned headscarves. The most extreme end of this style is almost contradictory to the concept of hijab itself—the MuhajaBabes. These girls (since usually they are relatively young) wear tight clothing, jewelry, heavy makeup, and designer labels in an effort to combine style and sex-appeal with an idea of religious observance.
and the backlash
Aside from veiling or not veiling, women here dress similarly to those in the US, just covering everything except their hands and feet usually. Sometimes this is just with leggings, a skintight undershirt, and whatever main piece they chose on top, like a long dress or a cute top. Women happily embrace color, though, in a way that is markedly different than women I see on the street in the Northeastern United States. The muhajabaat especially commit to color in a way that I find somewhat inspiring, even going as far as to match their makeup with whatever they are wearing that day (sounds crazy—but it can look really interesting). I don’t know if it’s the restriction or the added layers that drive women to get creative with their matching and their color-coordination, but the effect can often be spectacular.
I am still very much confused as to how this practice came about, as there does not appear to be anything in the Quran itself that presses women to cover up everything. According to my research and class discussion, the Quran says unfamiliar men must address the women of the Prophet’s family through a privacy curtain and that the women must dress modestly in the company of unfamiliar men. This means covering their necklines and wearing a special cloak in public so as to be identified and protected from harassment. The guidelines apply to both men and women in their clothing and interaction, but do not require women to be subservient in any way. Nowhere in the Quran itself is there mention of the word “hijab” (literally, “covering”) in reference to the garment, but in later interpretations, the rule of modesty for the Prophet’s wives has been taken as a rule for all women, and extended to include covering the entire body except the hands, feet, and face. The basic idea is that women should not show off their beauty except what appears within the guidelines and guard their modesty through averting their gaze. The explanation seems to be that this is for their protection, ensuring they will be recognized as believers and be left alone. In this way, it is argued that the hijab is part of women’s liberation, not their oppression, something I still find difficult to understand.
I’ll cover the controversies about hijab more in depth later, but for now I’ve got midterms coming up. Got to get studying!