Monday, May 17, 2010

Dressing Modestly...or else

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Certain women come to Cairo, and the larger Middle East, and fancy that whatever feminist mantra they abide by and however many bras they've burned in college exclude them from abiding by the cultural norms for women here. While, theoretically, one should have the right to freely and comfortably wear what she pleases, the idea that your mini-skirt will be the sudden breath of "enlightenment" that Muslim women need to rip off there hijabs is just as paternalistic and antagonistic as the chauvinist practices you reject and criticize.


Since the beginning of the semester, one of my classmates, a very blonde girl from Indiana, has refused to conform to some of the societal norms that the rest of us have grown accustomed to in order to avoid being harassed as much as possible. Calling herself a feminist, she refused to acknowledge that she could not behave in the same care-free, privileged manner here that she does in Indiana. Although her blonde hair and pale features already made her the favored target of Egyptian men, she routinely walked around Cairo in low cut shirts that exposed her bra, short skirts, and see-thru white pants, leaving very little to the imagination and attracting further attention to herself. She also refused to ride the women's cart on the metro, preferring to stand in the men's cart-a virtual meat market- allowing men the opportunity to "accidentally" brush up against her exposed breasts or grab her crotch through her see-thru pants.

 Unfortunately, last Monday morning, the consequences of her actions became painfully obvious. A man, who probably watched her take the same daily route downtown to the school bus, followed her. He grabbed her, dragged her into an alley, and ripped off her top. The man forcefully pinned her to the wall as he kissed her neck and grinded on her. She was lucky enough that some passers-by heard her screams and came to her rescue. The incident left her traumatized and understandably shaken up. First, it's important for me to say that there is no excuse for attempted rape or assault. Regardless of what a woman is wearing, a man should never force himself upon her. However, with that being said, 
put some freakin' clothes on ladies!! While one can never completely prevent harassment in Cairo, you can at least reduce the likelihood of harassment and assault by covering up as much as possible and adhering to social norms.

I understand that many women misunderstand the meaning of dressing modestly in Cairo. I, too, was confused by what it meant and how much I'd be required to put on in the desert heat. Here are the basics:
·       -  Neighborhoods that can be considered conservative are Islamic Cairo, Ain Shems, and even Downtown Cairo, for example. In more conservative neighborhoods or in mosques, you must cover your hair, arms and legs at all times
     -  In the rest of the city, skirts should be knee-length at the very least. No low cut shirts but short sleeve shirts are acceptable. There is no issue with women wearing pants and jeans. Covering your hair is optional as not all Egyptian women do it. Loose-fitting clothes that do not accentuate your figure are the best choice when in public.
·       -  In neighborhoods that are largely populated by expats, women have a little more flexibility with their wardrobe. There is a notable difference in what people living in suburbs like Maadi and Zamalek, for example. There, you will see the occasional pair of shorts and strapless summer dress confined to that neighborhood alone.
·      -   When accompanied by men to a social event, some women also wear shorter skirts or sleeveless shirts that they normally wouldn't wear out. The same relaxed dress code applies in chic bars and clubs that cater towards a younger and foreign crowd. The one time I've worn a cocktail dress to a party that stopped well above my knees, I was with enough Somali men to commandeer a small vessel and scare the pervert out of any Egyptian man.

What women wear in Cairo should not be considered a physical manifestation of oppression by your own Western cultural standards but an adaption to the religious and social climate in which they must live in. Although it is often so hot that I want to wear spaghetti strapped shirt and shorts, the amount of verbal and sexual harassment, and the potential for assault I'd face combined with my concern for cultural sensitivity prevent me from doing so. Above all else, my overall safety outweighs my concern for my right to walk down the street in a freakum dress or any other false pretenses of feminist bravado.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

When visiting Cairo, I wore skirts to my ankles and short sleeve shirts and was still harassed. Being a female alone in Cairo is hard.

Frenchie said...

As I've said before, nothing will stop Egyptian men from harassing women, even women in burqa's are harassed. However, it's common sense, I believe, that you'd dress in a way that attracted as little attention as possible as a small deterrence

Shannylynn said...

Wow first of all I feel really sorry for that girl and I hope whoever did it, was caught and punished.

But I must say she went about it in the wrong way. Displaying yourself in that kind of matter isnt going to solve anything. In fact it just makes her the object of more sexual harrasment. Not only that, but I've spoke with a lot of middle eastern men who assumed I wasn't a virgin, or I was slutty or, I've had many boyfriends because of my nationality(american) and this doesn't help fix that stereotype, only promote it(of course, most of the blame goes to the media on this one)

آخر أيام الخريف said...

As an Egyptian unveiled Muslim female... I fully agree with you .Unfortunately ,Sexual Harassment has become something almost normal in the Egyptian street.

By the way , if you cannot read my Blogger nickname written in Arabic , it is "Akher Ayam Elkhareef" , meaning " the last day of Autmn ". You can simply refer to me as " Khareef" . :)

Have a good day.

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