Saturday, April 14, 2007

Egypt - Style of Dress

One of the things that was interesting to me was the customary dress of the local people. Men seem to wear a wide variety of clothes, from shorts and short sleeved tops to long galabiyas, which are long sleeved, full-length dress-like garments, which are worn on top of t-shirts and often ankle length pants - linen or denim or plain cotton. It was amazing to me that, in the, to me, oppressive heat, there were lots of people wearing sweaters, jackets, and even parkas. I guess it is a matter of getting used to it, but it is still amazing to see.

The guide said that the only edicts from Islam about dress specify only that people must dress modestly. There is nothing any more specific than that, according to him.

The dress of the women is also interesting. Although it is acceptable for women not to wear a hijab (a head scarf, worn to cover most of the hair) in Egypt, probably a slight majority of women do wear one. One of the reasons seems to be that women wearing a hijab are less frequently the target of unwanted male attention. Many young women wear conservative clothing to protect their reputations and the reputations of their families. It is almost a way of saying, "Leave me alone; I am not interested." The most severe form of dress for women is the complete covering. Burqas are not seen in Egypt, but there are women who cover up everything except their eyes, even wearing gloves and socks to cover hands and feet. On the other hand, at the mall, we saw quite a few young women wearing hijabs, flamboyant face makeup, tight-fitting tops, and skin-tight jeans.

As tourists, we were very frequently the target of repeated, and annoying economic harassment. My daughter, who is living in Egypt this year while attending the American University in Cairo, said that verbal harassment is quite common, and it sometimes gets a bit more physical than that. We never felt endangered, but it is irritating. But, apparently, there is no real defense against it. Egyptians do not like to see foreigners imitating their customs either, i.e., it doesn't help for the American tourist to wear a scarf.

I don't really blame them. Much of the verbal harassment is designed to get the foreign tourist to look at the wares they are selling. The cost of the items is frequently fairly small for tourists, but that is their income and it is vital. Still, it does get tiring to have to be constantly on the alert against unwanted attention. If you look their way when you are passing their shops, you are accosted, "Take a look - no hassle!" If you reply and say, "No, thank you," that is the prompt for them to escalate their verbal assault. There is constant pressure to look at their wares, to stay there even when it is apparent that they do not have what you want, to buy even after you have decided not to, and then to suffer their scorn when you walk away ("Oh my GOD!" is the frequent parting remark.). It was uncomfortable for me. If you try to be polite, it is considered a sign of weakness. There were even many occasions on which I would probably have purchased more from the vendors if they had simply left me alone to look.

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