And Now for a Woman Traveler’s Take on Women in Egypt

Thanks so much for all your comments as you’ve traveled along with me through Egypt. I’m struck by how much apparent ill will there is against Egypt and how people think I’m promoting aspects of Egypt that anger them. Egypt simply “is.” Rather than condemn or condone aspects of its culture, I’m experiencing it. Being here (as a tourist with enough money for a guide and good hotel) is no less safe than being in America. I’m loving it, but I would not personally take tours from my company here because it’s a bit rough for my “demographic.” I can hardly wait to return with my film crew next season.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m traveling here with my partner, Trish Feaster (who’s writing a wonderful blog of her own at The Travelphile. With all the talk of Egypt’s treatment of women–and American women wondering what it’s like for a woman to be here, I thought it would be instructive to get Trish’s take on it. Here’s her latest post written after about 10 days on the streets of Egypt.

To enjoy more of Trish’s insights, writing, and great photography, like her Facebook page. She’ll report on Egypt, Israel, and more travels in the coming weeks. Thanks.

–Rick

Women, Religion and Politics in Egypt
By Trish Feaster, The Travelphile

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 compared to my home, many women are finding ways to express themselves religiously and politically loud and clear.

Visiting various neighborhoods in Cairo, we met mostly Muslims and just a smattering of Coptic Christians, but you might not know who’s who just from looking.  Naively, 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 fancy 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 (a 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.”

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.

Another friend, twenty-something 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 muumuu-like galabiyas that cover everything from the neck down, and modern attire with peek-a-boo bangs under headscarves that look like they’re about to come undone.

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.

Only in the villages and countryside do you find practically every woman in all black, wearing the long, shapeless dresses that denote conformity to the conservative view.  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 your religion (and yourself) is a choice, plenty of women in Egypt–conservative and liberal–are exercising that right to its fullest.

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.

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.

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.  The 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.”

Marwa–well-educated, open-minded, devout, and trendy.

Marwa–well-educated, open-minded, devout, and trendy.

In a country where conservative attire is pretty standard, in my usual clothes I would stand out like a sore thumb.  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 cultures.

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

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

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.

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)

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)

Because of their contributions and prominence in the Revolution, 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 been manifested in serious assaults on and violence towards women during demonstrations in 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.

Turning to Heba again, I asked whether she thought life for women has improved or worsened since the Revolution. She told me, “So many 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.”

Egypt is in the midst of political, social, and cultural change.

Egypt is in the midst of political, social, and cultural change.

Progress is evolutionary.  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.

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