Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 27, 2004 Women.

One of the things that baffled me in Cairo Ė and that always seems to interest my western friends Ė is the question of women and their clothing. Or more particularly, headscarves, veils, how they dress, how I dressed.

In the middle of the twentieth century Ė Iím being deliberately vague because my history is imprecise Ė Egyptian women threw off the veils, got educated, went to work, and generally took a position of greater equality than they had had in the past. In the past ten or twenty years they have continued to go to university, get an education, and hold jobs of all sorts, but they have returned to the veils and the headscarves. I donít understand it.

I looked at women all the time to try to make sense of what they wore. Whenever I could, without being rude, I photographed them as well Ė often that meant shooting into a crowd with my camera fully zoomed, hoping that no one would realize I was taking a picture of that one woman, not the whole street. Sometimes I captured the image I wanted, though not always.

From my ignorant outside perspective, the women seemed to be of many different types. I worked with a lot of professional women who wore headscarves. They were of all ages. They usually wore pants or long skirts and loose long-sleeved shirts that came down past their hips, with headscarves wrapped around their necks and sometimes their shoulders. The scarves were of all colors and patterns. Most were somewhat muted, but I saw plenty in glowing pinks, oranges, and blues. They wore no make-up, and to western eyes had no style or flair at all. In the Arab world, Egyptian world are known for being rather heavy, and many of these women fully lived up to that reputation. Very few women of working age were without headscarves; even those who were wore long-sleeves.

I talked to one of the women in the office about why she wore a headscarf. Sheís a young woman, perhaps 30, unmarried. She said she had begun wearing it a couple of years ago. It was her decision, and it was a sacrifice she was making. I donít quite know why she was making the sacrifice, but I suppose it was a religious statement, perhaps like fasting for Lent. Fasting for Yom Kippur seems different Ė that is a personal act, to come to grips with what is inside oneself, not to show a god your commitment to your faith.

I met an older woman who had been married to an Egyptian and had lived in Cairo much of her life. She was thoroughly dismayed by the veiled young women, and she said that the older upper class Egyptians who had been her husbandís friends were equally dismayed. They had fought for freedom from these veils, and here these young women were putting them back on voluntarily.

The restaurant at the shopping mall at my fancy hotel was full of Arab tourists, families coming from the Gulf states to escape the heat of summer. (I would have though perhaps Helsinki would be a better place to escape the heat than Cairo, but I guess it's all relative.) Egyptian women are positively naked compared to these women from the Gulf. They are covered from heat to toe in black. A black headscarf is draped over their heads and shoulders. A second scarf is wrapped around their faces just below the eyes, and tied in the back of the head. It falls over their faces and down to their chests. To eat, they lift the veil slightly and slip their fork or their coffee cup underneath it. Often their sleeves and the hems of their robes are decorated with glittering embroidery or tiny sparkly black stones or beads woven into the fabric.

I stared at them in constant astonishment. I think these are wealthy women, if they are spending their summers in Egypt. Their gleaming black robes are rich. In time I came to see them trying to distinguish themselves from each other with the patterns on their robes, their pocket books, the high-heeled shoes they wore, their heavy gold jewelry. They wore mascara and liner, their black eyes gleamed and twinkled. To those who know them, I suppose itís possible to read their moods and their feelings from their eyes alone, without seeing the rest of the person.

One afternoon I watched a young girl in black robes by the side of the pool. She was showing her face, but everything else was covered. Yet she was a lithe, bouncing teen-ager, running around with a camera, taking pictures of a man in the pool who I suppose was her brother. I felt that those black robes didnít affect her energy and enthusiasm at all, they were simply the clothes she had thrown on. Indeed, instead of giving her the somewhat mysterious look of the women whose eyes were the only living feature, she looked like a youthful monk, simply dressed and eagerly getting on with whatever interested her. Iíd like to have known who she was, what her life was all about.

Among the Egyptians, there were other types of women in veils and headscarves as well. Walking around the city I saw many older women wearing street dresses - loose long-sleeved floor-length robes that they put on over their regular clothes. They wore headscarves, as well, though sometimes tied in the back, around their hair, rather than in front to cover their necks. I think they were working class women, and they might have said that the street dresses were simply to keep the dirt off their house clothes.

Then there were the young women. One evening as I waited for some friends at a restaurant, a group of teen-agers came in, apparently all going out for someoneís birthday, as they carried gifts. The boys looked like the boys I knew when I was their age Ė jeans, sneakers, t-shirts. Even a couple of Jewish afros, though Iím sure the Egyptians donít call them that. The girls were in tight hip-hugger bellbottoms, very tight shirts, and a lot of makeup. Much like teen-agers in the US these days, though they didnít let their navals show and the clothes were a bit fancier. And American teen-agers don't wear headscarves with their revealing clothes. I really didnít know what to make of that combination. The headscarves seemed like a fashion statement Ė perhaps like the large crosses that some racy youngsters wear in the US these days. I wonder what their mothers think of it.

That evening I was waiting for my Kuwaiti friends. I had met Abeer, a dental student at Cairo University, when she was studying for her exams at the shopping mall restaurant. We got to talking, and became friends. Her sisters came from Kuwait to visit, and the three of us went out to dinner. I talked to them about their headscarves, and their interactions with men. These are professional educated women Ė Abeer's older sister Suad is a medical professional, Abeer will be a dentist, their younger sister is still in high school but is thinking about what work she will do. Suad and Abeer are beautiful women, and they attract a fair bit of attention walking in Cairo. In their late twenties, neither is married yet. They donít associate with men. Abeer loves to dance, but she said if she dances around men, they interpret it in the wrong way. When they feel ready to marry, they will look for husbands, but until then, they only associate with women. Suad and Abeer both said they wore headscarves simply because it seemed right to them.

I did not wear headscarves. Nor did I wear tight pants or tight shirts Ė but then, I never do. My concession to Egypt was that I did not wear shorts outside the hotel. I did wear tank-tops, which no one else does; I get way to hot to wear anything else in that weather. I wasnít bothered in the streets Ė but then, Iím not young, I wasnít wearing makeup or high heels or fashionable clothes or anything else to suggest that I might be interested. Whereas I saw the looks that my Kuwaiti friends got, with their elegant scarves and their mascara.

Itís all a bit beyond me.

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