Sunday, September 5, 2010

The headscarf and the veil

Before I came here, I wondered if I would be inclined to wear a scarf over my head at times to fit in and not to offend those around me.  I decided to wait to see how things felt when I got here.  Cairo is Cosmopolitan enough that I'm comfortable wearing my sun hat (... a really great hat given to me by my sister as a going-away present), rather than a scarf.  The sun is so bright and hot that I need the hat and I don't feel like the scarf is who I am so don't feel a need to wear it.  But I wonder about what it means to be covered a lot as I watch the women here.  There are so many colors and types of scarves that some look quite fashionable.  Some women wear the long flowing scarves over long flowing dresses and look like royalty as they float by.  

Sometimes when I ride the Metro by myself, I ride in the "women's car" which is for women only.  There's a sign overhead on the metro platform that shows everyone which area will be the women's car.  (As an aside, Jeff and I have wondered if there is also a men's car.  Jeff has speculated that certain markings on the train represent the men's car.  When Jeff, Cameron and I would get on a car that was mostly men, I would quickly look around to see if there was any other woman in the car (signaling that it was ok for me to be in there as well).  Even if we inadvertently ended up in the men's car (if this really does exist), I 'm sure people would excuse my behavior since I'm a foreigner and they would assume (quite rightly) that I don't know any better.  

It's very relaxing to ride in the women's car of the metro.  There's more space and one doesn't have to be so much on one's guard.  (Though in general, Cairo is one of the safest cities in the world from what I hear, so I have little fear that I will be robbed or assaulted in any way.  It's much safer than New York or D.C. for example.) There are always some women reading small books while riding (... I assume it's the Quoran but don't know since I can't read Arabic).  Most women are covered in this car, but not all.  Everyone seems fine with however you choose to be.  There are always at least a couple women in the car who are completely covered with only their eyes showing.  One woman even wore gloves .... and all of this in 90 degree weather on a subway that can be stifling hot such that drops of perspiration run down ones arms and legs steadily even if one isn't covered.  

I sat next to one woman on the subway who was completely covered and veiled.  I was interested to see how the veil is held up.  There's a little thread right above the nose that seems to hook to the top of the scarf to hold the veil up over the face.  I think some of the women in veils are as curious about me as I am about them.  They sometimes stare at me and I wonder if they think I'm unethical since I'm not covered like them.  

During my orientation week at American University in Cairo, I would often be waiting for a while at the bus stop with other students, some of whom were Middle Eastern Studies majors.  I asked them what the history of the veil was.   Different people offered different explanations.  One said it was because the Quoran said women should dress "modestly" but also pointed out that one prophet was shown three women:  one completely covered with a veil, one with her head covered only and one with no head covering or veil, and the prophet was asked which of these women was more holy.  The prophet answered that each was holy.  

Another student said the veil was a sign of privilege and status historically.  The women who were veiled were the upper class who did not need to do manual labor and who could remain in the home and be protected by the veil.  However now the veil or head scarf is worn by all classes.  It seems segments of the upper class are sometimes the most likely not to be veiled and covered.  I read an article in an expatriot magazine here that discussed how one expat went to an Egyptian wedding and dressed very conservatively only to find the Egyptian women arriving in short stylish skirts and strapless gowns.

One online article I read discussed the Muslim belief that "the honor of the family resides in the conduct of its women. Honor depends on a woman remaining chaste.....Thus, in order to be respected by men, and protected from them, in public a woman should not flout her looks."  Hence the veil and scarf.  

I've read that for some, to be covered is just a matter of custom, a way to not stick out of the crowd.  If you cover your head, no one pays any attention to you and you can go about your business with no stares or intrusions.  I also heard before I came that with the amount of dust and pollution in the air, covering ones head can be helpful in terms of keep one's hair cleaner.  

Though I don't wear a veil or a head-scarf, I do follow custom by not wearing shorts or anything sleeveless.  I've been wearing pants every day and it's hot but I'm getting used to it.  Men don't wear shorts either so Jeff is also in pants in 90 degree weather.  I've asked Jeff if he thinks he'll be wearing one of those long flowing gowns that men sometimes wear here.  They look like they might be cooler because there is room for the air to circulate.  Jeff didn't think he would be wearing one.


  1. Hi Carol,

    Just finished reading all the posts that I missed while I was travelling. Awesome documentation of your wonderful experience. I think your experience is so much richer than mine, mainly due to the presence of your family as well as the drastic difference in culture.

    Good luck and keep posting.


  2. The robe is called a Gallabiyah and I think it is very striking. A few more 104 degree days in Cairo and I just may give one a try.

  3. Hi Puja, Thanks a lot for your kind comment. It's nice to think of you back home in India reading this. Hope things are going well for you there!