Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Modesty in Egypt

Modesty in Egypt. In some ways it’s an oxymoron because modesty in Egypt can be such a contradiction. On the one hand, most women are covered. What does it mean to be covered? Well, it generally means showing little to no leg and covering the shoulders (but even in the heat of the summer, most women will cover all of their arms). For most, it means wearing the head scarf, and for more and more women, it also means covering the hands and face. Children learn this from an early age not just from observation and direct suggestion, but even from societal hints through toys. For example, Fulla dolls for girls come in two varieties—“Indoor clothing” which includes cute, bright-colored pants and t-shirt tops, and “outdoor clothing” of fully-clothed women in veil, usually black.

I certainly have some issues with this, of course. When I see a women in full-black—I can’t even see her eyes—in the heat of the Egyptian day, I wonder, is this really what God is asking for her to do? Women are the crown of creation, meant to express themselves and their beauty. They should radiate with life and love and beauty. But what does it mean to do so? Where is the line that separates expressing your beauty from putting too much value in the physical beauty of a women—only one aspect of a woman’s beauty and yet the one that is the most often abused? Much of the time I’m infuriated with the extent to which some women feel the need to be fully covered, because what I see is that it’s used as a way to make women responsible (and evidently put the blame on them) for men’s issues with sexuality and their lack of control. Women are “so powerful” in their beauty (no doubt) that they must cover themselves so that men won’t lose control? Come on.

However, there is a part of me that identifies with these ideas. It’s hard for me to reconcile in my mind. For instance, I find myself growing more and more frustrated with American culture and becoming more and more disgusted with issues of modesty as well. I recently started a Facebook profile online, and most of the time I search people I end up signing out feeling more angry and sad. I see people using it to show what they see is their “best side”—showing photos of themselves wearing close to nothing or making dramatic, sexual poses, trying to attract the opposite sex and validate themselves in such a way. In all honesty, this is one of the biggest issues I have about coming home—I don’t want to return to a sex-charged society. I don’t want to return to the US, where there is such pressure for women to flaunt their physical beauty and join the “game” of attraction and being noticed.

But, Egypt is sex-charged as well, even though Egyptians try to play it off it isn’t the case. Sure, many people respect modesty (as do many people in the US), but I daily see the contradiction of it. For one, even though most women are covering most of their skin, the majority are wearing some of the tightest clothing I have ever seen; much tighter than I would feel comfortable wearing. Their headscarves seem to be more of an accessory and fashion statement than just about anything else they wear. Everything is very color-coordinated and beautiful, and some go to great lengths to look so. You know the saying about a woman's mystery, how it turns men on. Well, I see that these women are 'smartly' doing their best to do the modest ('attractive') thing while showing of those femine curves, walking just right, and using their eyes.

Men expect women to dress very modest, but then they harass women nonetheless, and often seek sexual immorality with the foreign women, those seen as being less modest. Or, they value this modesty, and then hide away in their porn for sexual gratification. For fun most Egyptian men spend time at shesha bars, watching football (soccer) games, watching TV, and hanging out at internet cafes. On any building in Egypt you see the roof covered with satellite dishes; even the poorest families have satellite TV. What is on the TV? Well, a lot of sexuality. Sexuality through music videos, sex through pornography. And the internet-- where does one begin? Unfortunately even a couple of the people here in Egypt we were told to trust we have found to be porn-watching and sex-crazed individuals. Now, there are certainly a lot that goes into this. For one, men can’t get married until they have enough money to provide for the wife and future family, and they can’t date until they are ready to be married. The economy is so bad and so many people are unemployed, this generally means you have loads of 30-something men walking around the city desperately wanting to get married and start having sex, or at least date women.

Now, I’ve dealt with more sexual harassment than I care to express right now, and one thing that angers more than just about anything is when people give me more advice about what I should be doing to stop it. “Are you fully covered? Are you walking like you know where you are going? Are you keeping your eyes straight ahead and avoiding any contact with people?” Yes, yes, and yes. I’ve heard it all, and I do my best to avoid it. But, I’m white, I’m American, I’m young, and I’m a woman. I get harassed. Egyptian women get harassed. American women in America get harassed. It’s everywhere.

Still, I can’t stress enough what a disservice it is when I walk around downtown and see tourists visiting the city wearing tank-tops, shorts, and showing their bellies. Women!! Please, please, look around you and notice that NO ONE who lives here is doing this! People come for a week of vacation to Egypt and stay isolated in the fancy, high-class hotels and can, in their minds, stay clear of Egyptian society. On the one hand, I would agree—they aren’t seeing Egypt for what it is. However, people notice them; and the more they are noticed, the harder it is for the women living in Egypt. And, after being here for this long now, it shocks me every time I see so much skin. My immediate thought is, “You are not decent!”

I just got back from a holiday in Dahab, a laid-back backpackers resort town full of SCUBA and snorkeling in the Red Sea. I was constantly witnessing foreign women carelessly flirting with the Egyptian staff. What is acceptable to a Westerner is seen much differently here.

I’ve run into this problem as well. Frankly, I don’t have any male Egyptian friends, and I have no desire to have any. Sadly, I cannot be myself with any of them. I cannot be friendly or silly or fun. Anything like that is taken as a come-on. I cannot look at them in the eye. Even when I meet a man in a “respectable” situation, whether it be through a church or through mutual friends or ultimate frisbee, I am very stand-offish, and in my opinion, quite bitchy. Still, STILL, it can be taken the wrong way. Or, I’ll start to trust a man with time, only to find out a month or two down the road the relationship is not what I think it is. The few male ‘friends’ I have made are no longer—I’ve had to give them up in order to protect myself and protect them.

Some of the issues here center around misinterpretation or misunderstanding. Our cultures have different standards of modesty. And, like it or not, it sends signals about our sexuality. Still, nothing justifies harassment; a complete lack of respect for another human.

A month ago I went to a performance at AUC entitled “Bussy”. For those of you familiar with The Vagina Monologues, this performance is of the same nature but with an Egyptian twist—these are stories that Egyptian women have been through, their real struggles and frustrations and fears and joys. One women’s story was about her youth—at a very early age she wore the hijab (head covering), and when she was 10 an Imam (Muslim spiritual leader) molested her, and when she told her mom the mother said the girl must have done something wrong. Her response? “I was 10. I was dressed decently. I was wearing the hijab…”


  • At 6/01/2006, Blogger Teri said…

    Another thing is that, of course, in the US we put so much emphasis on looks and fashion and clothes and whatever--on outward beauty, basically...but here there's the same unhealthy emphasis, just taken in the opposite direction. GRR.

    As my preaching professor always said, "I feel that!"

  • At 6/12/2006, Blogger yousra said…

    we r going too much back that I could HARDLY believe it
    something must be done to break the cycle

  • At 6/20/2006, Anonymous Stephen said…

    1 Peter 3:3-4

    I will miss much of the modesty of Egyptian culture as well when I leave. Hopefully, Egypt and America both can learn more about regarding the inner adorning more than the outer.


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