What not to wear in post-revolutionary Egypt

– cross-listed at Tinfoil Yarmulke

Egypt is a really unpleasant place to be a woman.

I’d been warned before I visited last month, of course. But I figured this was a generic warning for the Fragile Naïve American Woman. I, full of hubris, was a six week veteran of the Middle East: I’d already had my culture shock. I’d been gawked at by young boys in Palestine, and inappropriately jostled by skeezy Orthodox dudes in the Jerusalem market.  Jordanian men talked around me like I wasn’t there while squinting hostilely at my bare neck. It was annoying and sometimes intimidating – but it did not seriously affect my comfort level. Moreover, I’d spent two summers in Italy. I could deal with aggressive men.

Yeah, no. Being a Western woman in Egypt fucking sucks. And being an Egyptian woman probably sucks more.

Now, Italy is aggressive. Italian men believe – delusionally, perhaps, but with total sincerity – that they are God’s gift to women. They think their stares, grabs, and catcalls will make tourists fall swooning into their arms. Sometimes they are right.  Their behavior is ridiculous but it is a means to an end and, once you’re used to it, the sincerity is kind of endearing. And they have the good sense to back off if you’re already taken.

Egypt is a different ballgame. I don’t think any Egyptian man thought he had a chance with me, or sought one. For one thing, I was always – ALWAYS – accompanied by a Frenchman twice their height and who was, if anyone asked, my husband. Their behavior on the street was as much as they were going to get. And that limiting factor is apparently license to be super, super dodgy.

No individual episode was terribly heinous, or even memorable. I can’t conceptualize the experience as a string of isolated occurrences. It was an atmosphere, a density, a constant grind. It was drip-water torture, an inescapable nuisance that with repetition could drive you insane.

The most frequent encounter would go like this: A man on the street would give me the slow look up and down. Then he would turn to the Frenchman and say “Lucky man!” That’s it. Dehumanizing and offensive, sure. But no biggie.

Except it happened three times per minute.

No doubt being one of, like, five tourists in all of post-revolutionary Egypt contributed to the frequency I experienced.  And rarely were the comments much cruder (in English, anyway). Often they’d go even more complimentary and refer to me as “his queen” or “his princess,” usually as a cover for even more direct gawking. Sometimes, when they were angry that we were difficult to cheat out of money, the anger would be expressed in gender-specific terms.

But due to the constant crowds in the streets (and the constant presence of soldiers and tanks) I never felt in danger of more serious assault than some wandering hands. It was only when the crush of people pushed me more than an arm’s length from the Frenchman that I was ever groped. But I’m pretty sure I was groped every time I was more than an arm’s length from him. And so, if I could help it, I was never was. No matter how much you like a guy, it’s bound to induce some artificial resentment when you have no choice but to be at his side at all times.

[this soldier grabbed my chest a moment later]

And now we get to the veil. Because a woman can go about her business unaccompanied and unmolested – if she is covered from head to toe. It quickly became clear that a garment theoretically meant to signify modesty and devotion – and I don’t doubt that this is truly the case for some Egyptian women, or for women in Jordan or Palestine or, say, France – has a far more utilitarian purpose in the streets of Cairo: protection.

There is an obvious question I have not yet addressed. Many people have asked me this, quite legitimately, and many of you are probably thinking it right now. I answered this question a dozen times before I even fully understood my own cringing response. The question is, of course: why didn’t I cover up?

And now I’m going to let that dangle for a bit while I discuss how the veil is degrading to men. That’s right, men. Women are not being covered in black cloth and herded into separate subway cars because they are unclean – that is what Judaism does (go team!). From my outsider’s perspective, in Egypt it looked like the veil was truly more about protection than subjugation.

But the veil as protection assumes that men are pigs. It assumes that men in modern Egypt are not capable of controlling themselves. The sight of female hair or ankles will send them into a frenzy, whereupon they will not be responsible for their actions. So the burden falls on the good Muslim woman to cover her hair and her arms and her face and separate herself from full and free participation in public life, because men are pigs. The degradation is towards men, but the burden is carried by women.

From what I experienced, it sure seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it makes sense. The only Muslim women that Egyptian men can actually see are their mothers and sisters. Their sisters don’t go about town uncovered, because she would be harassed. Ergo, any woman who does go about uncovered must be seeking harassment. Of course they grab at a girl in a knee-length skirt. By not covering my hair I, not they, have rejected the contract. I chose not to play by their rules – does that make me complicit in their response?

Last night in some American city a woman walked home alone in a miniskirt. She was assaulted. Was she asking for it?

Ask me again why I didn’t cover up.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted April 19, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Egads! I’m sorry to hear about your trip to Egypt. Pretty sucky that a woman can’t even go around with her hair out without being regarded as “open for business.” Almost sort of reminds me of when my mom told me that growing up her mother and uncle (hint, patriarchy) didn’t allow the girls to go out much even if it was with a group of girls without being chapheroned by their brothers. The assumption that my mom and aunts would be regarded as sluts or be assaulted. It’s 2011 in Southern California and still I have to convince my relatives to let me and my cousins WALK ACROSS THE STREET to the General Store. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm………………………..

  2. Posted April 19, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, when I was in Egypt back in my college days there were men who attempted to barter with my stepdad to purchase me as a bride, offering anything from money to camels.(I wore my everyday clothes there, not a veil) There were also men who came to my assistance when I lingered a little too long in a shop full of essential oils after dusk and the bus to the hotel left without me, perfect gentlemen. I didn’t feel compelled to count the number of times one thing happened vs. the other, but it did provide a valuable teaching moment that no matter what I’d been told about Middle Eastern men, they don’t all act in one way towards women. Hell, it’s not like good old NYC has a dearth of leerers and gropers either! (But again, not everyone.)

    Maybe some day I’ll make it to Italy (I’d love to go for the art history alone!) and then I can decide what I think about the stereotypes I’ve heard about men there.

  3. Posted April 20, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Just a few things-
    As a Jew, and an Israeli who happens to live in Jerusalem, I have to add a bit of insight into what you said about Jewish women covering up because they are considered unholy. specifically, and I quote:

    “Women are not being covered in black cloth and herded into separate subway cars because they are unclean – that is what Judaism does (go team!)”

    First off, the reasoning that orthodox jews have behind making women dress more modestly is the same as that of egyptian men; they say that it is so that men will be able to control themselves. In some ultra-orthodox circles, women have to sing softer, dress in clothes very similar to burkas, and married men have to avert their eyes and wear a veil over their hats. Now granted, I completely disagree with all of this behaviour, and as a liberal, feminist Jew I refuse to partake in any of it, but it does happen. I personally think that women should not be the ones who are punished so that men can control themselves- men just need to exercise self-control. But that’s not what happens in reality. Secular women, who dress in modern clothes, get harassed on buses and on the streets every day, because they are considered to be sluts.
    Women, in the orthodox world, need to dress more “modestly” because of men, just like in Egypt.

    Second, forcing women to sit in the back of the bus (Jerusalem, specifically, doesn’t have a subway system) is now completely illegal in Israel- the supreme court passed a law six months ago, and ever since then women from the movement for pluralism have been volunteering to ride buses, undercover, and make sure that no one is forced to sit where they don’t want to. It still happens rarely, but the volunteers report both the bus driver and the man forcing, and they get fined 1000 shekels (about 295 USD) for not complying to the law.

    I would appreciate it if you would research stuff like that before posting a blog-post. Israel gets enough flack from foreign media because of misunderstandings and misinformation. I realize that this was just a tiny part of your post, and I feel your pain about the harrasing, Iv’e been to Egypt and guys there know no boundaries- but just that little bit irked me.

    • Posted May 3, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      Hi Yael,
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.
      A clarification regarding some ambiguous sentence structure on my part – I was not saying that the Jews make their women wear black cloth and ride separate subway cars, but the Egyptians. “That’s what Jews do” was referring to separation due to uncleanliness. Certainly one may interpret the rules of negiah and niddah differently, but I was taught in my religious education that one must avoid all contact with the opposite sex while on your period, including accidental contact, and that this is because women are unclean while menstruating.
      I certainly did not mean to imply that mandatory separate seating for Jewish women was due to a general belief in their uncleanliness (and indeed, until your comment, I was unaware that this had even been previously legal). I’m sorry my writing was misleading on that point, and I’ll take a look at revising that sentence to be clearer and less flippant.
      Thanks!

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