to hijab or not to hijab?

With all of the issues that are publicized about the Middle East, I didn’t expect my blog to be almost entirely composed of entries about food and the heat (in my defense, I love food, and it is REALLY hot here).

Earlier this month, my mom pointed out that I have not commented on the “spirit of women” here yet. I can see how strange that seems given the reputation that this area has when it comes to gender equality. To be honest, I haven’t felt comfortable writing about it so far, for various reasons.

First, there’s my credibility on the subject. I need to start with a small disclaimer: I’m not exactly surrounded by average Egyptians here. I’m living on campus at an affluent university with a very westernized student body. My contact with “real” locals is limited, and I still feel very much like a tourist. There’s also the fact that Egyptians are not known to be outspoken about personal matters like relationships between men and women- one of the reasons why this study abroad program does not offer “homestay” options is because it’s uncommon to invite anyone but close friends or relatives into your home. Especially given this information, I don’t think that being here for three weeks qualifies me to ask people here about their relationships or home lives. At this point, I have experienced an abundance of cultural quirks and differences, but am not going to pretend that I’ve figured out the Egyptian way of life. It is a volatile subject- I don’t want to misrepresent the reality of it.

With that being said, I haven’t really had much to say about the women here anyways. I hate to disappoint, but people are surprisingly normal here. Men and women alike question the professors, hang out with friends, and make fun of the international students on campus. They aren’t living in caves (or pyramids, for that matter), and are involved in activities outside their religion. I’ve even heard some familiar phrases when students talk about Islam- “My parents would be angry if I didn’t participate in Ramadan” is the Egyptian equivalent of “My parents would be angry if I don’t go to church on Sunday”.

This is not to say that I haven’t observed any differences- it’s easy to see the disparities between Egyptians and Americans, and more particularly between covered and uncovered Egyptian women. Actually, I feel like most of the differences lie in the hijab itself. I have noticed that hijab-wearing women tend to hang out together and act a little differently. Covered women tend to be quieter than the others, and are more shy around men. I have also observed them as being less westernized- they usually aren’t familiar with American music, brands, or slang. Some of the uncovered girls here have gone so far as to indulge in lip, nose, and even eyebrow piercings. The majority of women hanging around campus do not wear hijabs, but do dress conservatively- it’s very rare to see exposed legs on anybody.

I have mixed feelings about the head coverings so far. On one hand, I think that it’s admirable and beautiful that they are so dedicated to, and humbled by, their beliefs. The girls are still able to express themselves through colorful patterns and matching accessories, and have shifted the focus from their physical assets to their other qualities. They still partake in sports and organizations on campus, regardless of their choice in clothing. On the other hand, many people associate the covering of a woman with the suppression of one, arguing that our bodies are natural and something to take pride in. It also seems as though covering a woman assumes that men are completely incapable of restraining themselves upon the mere sight of a female, which I think is offensive to men as well.

Nonetheless, I feel as though these differences remain in the public sphere. Once we get into the girls’ dorms, there’s almost no difference between us. The girls gossip, lounge around with hair flowing freely, and trade clothes, food, and makeup. In the end, these Egyptians are still people- they’re really not that much different than I am once the hijab comes off. I’m waiting to get closer to the girls in my dorm to ask why some of them chose to wear the hijab in the first place, and what it represents for them- at this point, we’re still getting to know each other.

The women around me (both hijab-ed and not) are confident, funny, and extremely hospitable. They are much more than the suppressed victims of ‘honor killings’ and forced marriage that most sources make them out to be. After all of the warnings that I received about how terribly women are treated here, I expected much, much, much worse. The only harassment that I have personally received is very typical of any foreign country- having people on the streets yell “Obama!” and “America!” at me, and getting ripped off at stores because I’m a tourist, not because I’m a woman. I do get stared at a fair amount, regardless of who I’m with or what I’m wearing. But for what it’s worth, I feel like I’ve gotten harassed more by Egyptian women giving me mean looks for exposing my knees than by Egyptian men. In reality, Muslims visiting the US probably have more to worry about right now than American women (or men) visiting Egypt.

I’ll be the first to admit that I know more about the cultural oddities here than the multifaceted gender issues. I’ll probably look back on this post in a few months with a different opinion, but this is where I’m at right now. Yes, there are inequalities. No, it’s not to the extent that it’s made out to be. But I think the same can be said for the US, on the opposite end of the spectrum. If Muslim women are suppressed and overly religious, we’re valueless and oversexed. It goes both ways, and in reality, the majority of us fall somewhere in the middle.

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1 Comment

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One response to “to hijab or not to hijab?

  1. Rod

    Hi Sophie,

    Once again I have to tell you how impressed I am at your excellent communications skills (not that I am surprised, I am just very pleased!).
    Glad to hear of your patience to learn more before passing judgement. I totally agree with your observation that, most likely, people in another culture are likely very similar, and fall somewhat in the middle of the spectrum of society. I have worked with Europeans and Asians in their cultures for years, and have usually found this to be the case.
    One thing I have found is that the news media around the world tends to stir up emotions by reporting on the extremes – after all, they do have to find “news” in order to sell newspapers and magazines, and the extreme is what tends to make for interesting reading.
    I would guess the very poor areas of Cairo would tell us a bit different story – just as the poor areas of LA, SF, Paris, London, New York, etc., would show a different, somewhat disturbing, side of all our cultures.
    I love your blog ! Hope all is well.
    Love,

    Dad

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