A Woman in Egypt, initial impressions

Posted by sue on January 26th, 2007

I have noticed a couple of things about women and gender relations in Egypt so far than seem worthy of comment.

First, as Len mentioned, there are more women and girls wearing headscarves (hijab) here than in Morocco, or wearing a garment that covers the head and the whole upper body with one piece of flowing fabric, worn over a long dress or long skirt. Long A-line skirts that reach to the ground are popular here. Also more common here than in Morocco, though still not all that common, is the niqab, a veil across the face that leaves only the eyes visible– women that determined to cover up often wear black gloves, too, so that none of their skin sees the light of day except for a little around the eyes. (A little spooky, yes.)

In general, veiling is popular for various religious and cultural reasons, and is even fashionable, but it is controversial even in Egypt because the government is nervous about conservative religious movements, and there are many different interpretations of the Quran about how women should dress. I certainly haven’t felt any need to wear a headscarf because A) I’m not a Muslim, and B) there are still plenty of Egyptian women and foreign women in Cairo who don’t wear them.

A side effect of all the covered hair is that there aren’t many hair salons around (though there’s a men’s barber shop on practically every block)—I could really use a haircut!

A more general observation about gender relations in Egypt is that the division between women and men feels a bit stronger here than in Morocco. In Morocco, men we met, who were friends of Len’s or our landlord or whoever, when greeting us, always shook my hand and said hello to me and to Len whenever we saw them. But in Egypt, men will shake Len’s hand but not mine, usually. A subtle difference, to be sure. In general, things feel pretty similar to Morocco—most cafes are filled with men only, drinking coffee or tea and smoking, but there are other cafes, often more upscale ones, with both women and men. When I walk alone, men occasionally yell “Hello, what is your name” (all the English they know, I presume) and other things in Arabic that I don’t understand, but not in a threatening way—more like I’m a curiosity to them. It was the same way in Fez.

17 Responses to “A Woman in Egypt, initial impressions”

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    Hi there! Will the men pull your finger? Have you tried that?

  2. jim Says:

    Does the difference change when people you’re talking to find out you speak Arabic? Just curious.

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