Islamic Women

From an outsider’s perspective, being an Islamic woman in today’s times presents some complexities. From what I’ve heard, the pressure on Islamic women and what they should wear and how they should behave and what they can or cannot do, varies greatly throughout the Arab world.

Now, keep in mind this is merely what I’ve heard and not witnessed myself (yet), but in Saudi Arabia any woman (including western “visitors” and “Dips”) has to be completely covered: hair, wrists, ankles, arms, everything. They apparently don’t require the niqab (facescarf) or gloves, but depending on the city, some, such as Riyadh, are more conservative than others, like Jeddah. In Riyadh, women are also forbidden from driving and smoking (not to mention pole dancing and distributing heroin), and it’s not uncommon to see the women all in black, including headscarf, facescarf and gloves, regardless of the weather. I’ve been told by friends here that wearing the niqab over the face is really restrictive and uncomfortable and something that you definitely have to get used to.

On the other hand, Jordan is much more relaxed in their interpretation of women in the Koran, and while there are some headscarves and occasional abayas (dresses), there is a lot of western dress as well and women are not prohibited from driving, smoking, etc.

In the middle of these two polarities, lies Egypt. The vast majority of women here wear long sleeves, abayas, long skirts or pants, and a headscarf. Occasionally you do see women here dressed in full black, with a niqab, but they're a minority. (I do wonder, though, if they consider themselves more religious or more pious that the other women. What are the mutterings within Islamic women about each other's interpretation of what's "appropriate"?) If you see a woman with flowing hair, it’s pretty much assumed she’s Christian (or a Westerner), but they are also a small minority. As a Westerner, I have never felt uncomfortable not wearing a headscarf anywhere in Cairo (though I will wear them when visiting mosques, out of respect).

However, despite not exposing their arms and legs, Egyptian women turn this into an opportunity to display their personal flair with colors and fabrics and sparkles and beads. This fashion display is especially true of the younger women, who always bring to mind a parade of peacocks or collection of flitting butterflies when I see them gathered. The vast majority take great pride in matching and coordinating layered headscarves with printed tops or skirts, and they love high-heeled stilleto-like shoes. (I have enough difficulty navigating the buns-of-steel curbs and broken sidewalks in my clunky (but colorful) crocs, definitely not adding the challenge of stilletos.) Despite any perceived oppression or obstruction the women in Egypt at least, have embraced the Islamic traditions but done so with panache, style and often a bit of flamboyance.