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Egyptian Women: Image vs. Reality

If you see a woman in Cairo with her hair uncovered, she is either Christian, a tourist, or very, very brave.
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I'm walking the crowded streets of Cairo on a Tuesday afternoon. An Egyptian woman passes me, her black hair blowing in the strong spring breeze, and as she walks confidently down the narrow sidewalk she is followed by many eyes; men and women alike turn their head to watch her. Even though my hair also flows freely across my shoulder, I find myself gazing after her too. She is so different than other women around me that I can't help but wonder about her story.

But when I pass a newsstand, every woman looks like her.

According to an article in the March 30 issue of Time, more than 80% of Egyptian women wear the hijab, loosely defined as a head covering or modest dress. Based on my observations during a recent visit to Egypt, I would not agree with that figure; it is too low. Virtually every Egyptian women I saw covered her hair completely, most wore loose fitting clothes, and a smaller but surprisingly significant number donned a full burqa. That was why I, too, followed the unscarved woman with my eyes, even after only a few days in Cairo; with virtually every woman around me covering her hair she appeared exotic and unusual. Business women in tailored suits and laughing twenty-somethings in designer jeans all wore scarves, often matching the color of their outfits in spectacular fashion (making me wish I could see their clothes closets). As an un-scarved tourist I received plenty of looks but no outward disapproval, from men or women. Egyptian women in particular greeted me with great warmth; they seemed eager to catch my eye, just to offer a smile and a nod, a way to make friendly contact.

A French woman living in Cairo told me if you see a woman with her hair uncovered, she is either Christian, a tourist, or "very, very brave." She spoke of a friend, a Muslim woman who does not wear the hijab. "It is difficult for her," she said. "She faces remarks every day, from both men and women." Some observers believe that is why some women cover; to neutralize and eliminate an issue viewed as a stumbling block to a woman's success. Nabil Abdel Fattah, author of The Politics of Religion, is one of those observers. He believes the headscarf is not always worn for purely religious purposes, describing the hijab as a "religious mask" in one interview, arguing in Time magazine that the headscarf "gives women more power in a man's world."

Yet as dominant as the head scarf is on the streets of Egypt, there is one avenue where women's hair flows freely: mass media. In advertisements and on television, scarved women are rarely to be found. The first time I saw this was on a billboard in Giza; the unscarved model on the giant sign stood in such sharp contrast to the scarved women walking below her that it seemed shockingly out of place. And it was the model's hair that I noticed first: long, dark and lustrous, the perfume billboard seemed to flaunt that hair, at least to my eyes. In all Egyptian media, women without scarves rule the day. If I had prepared for my trip by reading Egyptian magazines or watching women deliver the news, I may have thought women in hijab were the exception instead of the norm. This disparity between reality and image was noted in an article in Arab Media & Society published in 2007; the author observed what I observed, that it is "rare to see a veiled woman in an ad specifically targeting the Egyptian market."

Nowhere was the discrepancy between reality and image more shocking than in the Alexandrian Desert. The freeway from Alexandria to Cairo is lined with giant billboards announcing soon-to-be built planned communities near already built business parks. The billboards promise communities of suburban looking homes in close proximity to malls, schools, golf courses and spas. All women on the billboards were more than just scarf-less; they were golfing in shorts, lounging by a pool in a bikini or getting a massage in nothing but a towel. And they were usually blond.

When seen in person, the difference between the woman on the Egyptian street and what is portrayed by the Egyptian media and marketers is so stark it leads to many questions. Did the women on television agree to give up the hijab when they accepted their job? Are marketers sending a subliminal message of encouragement to the French woman's unscarved friend, or are they simply emulating Western nations? I got no answers: as friendly as the Egpytian women were almost all my interactions were with men; they didn't seem willing to discuss it, and quite frankly I didn't feel comfortable asking. Left to my own musings as I admired the magnificent carvings of Egyptian women from long ago, I couldn't help but wonder how close they were to the reality of women of that century, and what images will someday be viewed as portraying the women of Egypt in the 21st century, accurately or not.

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