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Women, Religion, and Politics in Egypt

As a woman, I cherish the hard-earned rights, freedom, and respect that my gender enjoys in America and throughout the Western World.  We’ve come a long way in the last century, but we still face challenges and work diligently to hurdle them.  And because we recognize the value and contributions of women, no matter where they live, we want all women to savor the same opportunities we have.  Here in Egypt, I’m finding out that although the current definition of rights, freedom, and respect may seem to differ a bit here than where I come from, women are finding ways to express themselves religiously and politically loud and clear.

Muslim or Christian?  Can you really tell just from looking?  Answers: Coptic Christian and No.
Muslim or Christian? Can you really tell just from looking? Answers: Coptic Christian and No.

Visiting various neighborhoods in Cairo, we met mostly Muslims and just a smattering of Coptic Christians, but you might not know who’s what just from looking.  Naïvely, I subconsciously believed that any woman wearing a headscarf would be Muslim, and anyone who’s not would be Christian.  Our guide Hanna–a devout Muslim with liberal politics whose curly locks were hidden under a tight black wrap and a rhinestoned baseball cap–explained that many Copt women also wear headscarves, and that wearing one is a personal choice for any woman.  While Islamic tradition would have women appropriately covered in public except for their hands and face, in practice, how Egyptian Muslim women interpret that tradition ranges from wearing no hair cover at all to dressing in the full hijab/burka (gown-like dress with head covering that exposes only the eyes).   Hanna quipped, “Some think they’re doing extra so they can earn more favor with God,”

As a modern, liberal Muslim, Hanna forgoes the traditional headscarf and opts to cover her hair with a fashionable baseball cap.
As a modern, liberal Muslim, Hanna forgoes the traditional headscarf and opts to cover her hair with a fashionable baseball cap.
Within this Alexandrian family, you have a mom who chooses to dress very conservatively, and two daughters who go for a more casual and fashionable approach.
Within this Alexandrian family, you have a mom who chooses to dress very conservatively and two daughters who go for a more modern and fashionable approach.

Wearing a sheer, florescent green headscarf  that matched her white and florescent green sweater, twenty-something-year-old Marwa shared with me that how one dresses is an expression of individuality–and even rebellion–as much as it is of religion. In big cities like Cairo, Alexandria, and Luxor, I found myself entranced by the women’s visual expressions of religion and modesty: full hijab, primly wrapped headscarves accompanying black mumu-like galabayas that cover everything from the neck down, and modern attire with peek-a-boo bangs under scarves that look like they’re about to come undone.  Scarves can be frilly, animal-print, or Technicolor, but all seem as much a stylish accessory as a symbol of devotion.

Although Marwa strongly embraces the traditions of the Islamic religion, she stills enjoys being trendy.
Marwa–well-educated, open-minded, devout, and trendy.

Only in the villages and countryside do you find practically everyone in all black and in the long, shape-hiding dresses that denote conformity to the conservative, where women are typically less educated and poor.  Still, Marwa was confident that no Egyptian woman is forced to wear a particular type of garment, and rebellion against the norm is not exclusive to the less religious or the wealthy.  In urban areas (which tend to lean liberal), extreme conservatism has flowered lately because rules have become less enforced in Egypt, not more, and women want to express their opposition to that trend. If how you express and whether or not you express your religion (and yourself) is a choice, women in Egypt–conservative and liberal–are exercising that right to its fullest.

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With me and Rick and guests in her home, Heba appropriately covers her hair according to Muslim tradition.

While how one dresses can correlate with one’s religion and how devout one may be, people I spoke with assured me that it’s irrelevant to how most Egyptians interact with one another.  Degree of piety doesn’t prevent socializing with another group.  Asking my Muslim friend Heba for her take on this (she chooses to dress modestly and to meticulously cover her hair in public or when her family has male guests who aren’t relatives), she agreed saying, “What you do and what you believe is between you and your God.  It’s no one else’s business.”  She also reminded me that under the long gowns and in the privacy of one’s home, a woman wears whatever she pleases (more on eye-popping Egyptian fashion in a later post).

While I initially began wearing the headscarf out of respect for the culture, I really began to enjoying wearing it quite a bit.
While I initially began wearing the headscarf out of respect for the culture, I really began to enjoying wearing it quite a bit. (photo by Rick Steves)

In a country where conservative attire is pretty standard, in my usual clothes, I would stand out like a sore thumb (whereas in The States, I mostly blend in).  So, pants or long skirts with long-sleeve shirts were my daily uniform, and a fashionable scarf around my neck could quickly double as a headscarf when more modest attire was required in mosques, churches, or in certain private homes.  I came to appreciate the practicality of wearing a headscarf (not having to fix my hair, protecting myself from the sun or wind). I felt comfortably more engaged with the people, and I think people appreciated me showing my heartfelt respect for their social and religious customs.

With respect to how I was treated as a woman, I really can’t complain.  Most everyone I met–male and female–was not only courteous but genuinely friendly, too.  Nonetheless, Egypt is a man’s world where women abide by a certain expected level of decorum in public, and I was conscious of that.  Walking down the streets at whatever hour, I was mindful of staying close to Rick or our guide.  Yet despite recent isolated yet horrific incidents or violence towards women, I never once felt like I was in danger or sensed any degree of animosity.  Intermittent stares and barely audible comments from men like “Hey, beautiful!  Where you from?” or “Pretty lady, you Japan?” were about as lascivious as a middle-schooler awkwardly trying to flirt with his teacher.  I’ve been treated worse on a New York subway train or walking through downtown San Diego.

Women are emboldened by their accomplishments during the Revolution.  Despite recent misogynistic violence  (a crime that is not unique to Egypt), women throughout the country are continuing to use the momentum of the Revolution to gain greater social equality.
Egypt is in the midst of political, social, and cultural change.

While the trunk of Egyptian society is rooted in long-held Islamic and Coptic Christian traditions of modesty, piety, and respect for order, it’s also feeling its limbs grow with nourishing access to the latest technology and fashions, international influences, and the burning–if somewhat dimmed–afterglow of a people’s revolution.  It’s a complicated tug-of-war between what they’ve been accustomed to and what they now know is possible.

Because of their contributions and prominence in the Revolution (participating in demonstrations, having their opinions heard and supported), women, who rarely had a voice until then, are gaining confidence that their role is evolving ever forward.  Even so, there are some in this country who would have them return to their “proper” place: Be seen and not heard, and don’t upset the pomegranate cart.  This has manifested in serious assaults on and violence towards women during demonstrations on Tahrir Square.  My friends here (male and female) give me various versions of these incidents–all condemn them, but each qualifies the events with varying degrees of blame on the individual attackers, mob mentality, and even the government itself.

Egyptian women face tough challenges on many fronts in their country, but a spirit of optimism carries on.
Egyptian women face tough challenges on many fronts in their country, but a spirit of optimism carries on.

Turning to Heba again, I asked whether she thought life for women has improved or worsened since the Revolution, she told me, “Women in Egypt now realize that their voice matters, but conservative and extremely traditional groups want to keep us silent.  It’s hard for us now, and some women have paid a terrible price.  But we’ve tasted freedom, and we will never go back.”

As a citizen of the world, it’s my responsibility to champion the rights of all people, but it’s also my challenge and duty to understand that my worldview–shaped by my experiences as an American woman–is not necessarily the right or only way to see things.  Progress is an evolution.  Sometimes it feels likes change happens overnight.  Other times, things move so slowly that we can’t even perceive those transformations.  But things do change…and usually for the better. Things are complicated but evolving here for women in Egypt–differently than they have in other parts of the world, but still in forward motion.  We may not fully understand the cultural context but it’s fascinating to try and learn about it.

14 thoughts on “Women, Religion, and Politics in Egypt

  1. Trish, This is such a thoughtful summation of ten day’s experience in Egypt. Thanks for sharing this. (And for being my body guard on the streets of Cairo.)

    1. I really appreciate that, Carol. With your help and encouragement (sharing the Facebook page or the link to the article with your friends and family), I hope we can get more people to read it, too. Thanks for all encouragement and for reading The Travelphile!

      1. Most welcome. You are a good writer, but more importantly, you’re taking this all seriously and providing insight into issues that are very much on people’s mind.

  2. I am leaning so much on this journey with both of you. I can only imagine the feeling of living multiple lifetimes worth of experiences through this quest. Be well.

  3. Thank you, Trish, for your thoughtful commentary. My time in Egypt last year left me with many questions, but also with a serious desire to return. On one of Rick’s tours (Turkey), our male guide became a bit stiff when questioned about hijabs. All he’d say was, “If it is tied under the chin, it is simply an old woman’s tradition. Anything else is a political statement.” He was a Sunni and quite uncomfortable discussing this topic. We had no opportunity to run it by a local. I’d love to have had his wife as a guide. She undoubtedly would have had much more to say! But you’ve done it marvelously.

  4. I traveled to Egypt twice, about 10 years apart. In the first trip, women were covered, always accompanied by a male. The male might speak to us, the female, never. In the second trip, women wore very colourful scarves and oversized sunglasses. Female students were anxious to interact with us and practice speaking English and teach Arabic. I wonder what is happening to those girls today? Once they tasted freedom and some independence, they were not wanting to go back to more traditional ways.

    1. I’m sure Western influence, access to social media, and the natural progression of society towards equality (even when it happens in fits and starts) have had major impact on that. The pendulum may swing back and forth a bit, but I hope that it continues to swing towards increased respect towards women.

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