Greetings from Cairo part VIII
Published in Ishtar 5/2007

Fashion in Islamic terms

In the eyes of an outsider the process of Egyptian women getting dressed may seem very simple and straightforward. All-covering cloaks and scarves in theory are to direct the viewer's thoughts away from the gutter and give all women a similar appearance. All the while they make the mornings easier, you don't need to do your hair either. However, the truth is far from this initial assumption. Appearance is really important and Egyptian women and girls love to look pretty.

At home women are expected to dress nicely and take good care of their entire appearance for their husband. It's also a way to try to assure that the husband will stay with the wife: very few wives would want the stigma that divorce would bring. In public places and in they eyes of people - meaning men - outside the family women should look as unnoticeable as possible. This is to guarantee the honor of both the family and the woman. It signifies respect towards the woman when her appearance goes unnoticed by other people - meaning those men again.

Outside home the attire of muslim women can be divided into three rough categories. The combination of galabeya and higab, which leaves the face uncovered, is the most common outfit. The most religious ones will wear a niqab, which covers almost the entire face, in addition to the galabeya. The eyes are uncovered or there may be a piece of thin chiffon or mesh in front of them. Young women in the city tend to wear even tight clothing like their Western sisters. The first two attires have existed for a long time. The jeans and higab on young women is an complete newcomer. That's why I will focus mainly on the introduction of the last mentioned fashion.


In addition to the lower and middle class women in the city, the womenfolk in the countryside mostly wear galabeyas. The woman's marital status and age also affect their choices in clothing. The husband's opinion may change the wardrobe of a young lady rather soon after the wedding. As women get older they often put on the galabeya. As anywhere in the world the children's needs go before their parents', and galabeya and all that goes with it is affordable and ineffected by any fashion trends.

Mostly the color of galabeya is black. Other dark colors are a close second. Dark green, blue and burgundy creatures are everywhere. Galabeyas are decorated with stiches, borders and appliques at the hem and sleeves. Sometimes the front side is fully decorated with beadwork or ribbon. Usually the higab and other accessories are chosen to match the decoration of the galabeya. A dark fabric can be accompanied by a very bright colored scarf. Traditional women dress in all black.

Interestingly enough, the advertisements generally use two different types of women. A big part of them are advertising food articles - oil, butter, cheese - or detergents and cleaning chemicals. These products belong in women's world. Trendy and educated 'modern mothers' are dressed in higabs and galabeyas in soft colors, traditional mothers entirely in black.

Skin tight

A few decades ago the higab didn't have the sort of presence on the street as it does today. As the Islamic ideals have gained more ground in recent years, the landscape of Cairo has transformed aswell. In the 80's higabless heads and flowing hair were still a common sight. Nowadays most women without headscarf are Christian. The higab has become more of a habit, the only acceptable way, than a proclamation of religious piety. This has created an interesting combination. Young women have adopted influences from Western fashion and pair it with Islamic practices. Formfitting shirts and tight jeans were previously not acceptable when worn with higab. At the moment bare skin is considered inappropriate. Only the hands up until the wrists and the face are appropriate to reveal in public. The extent of cleavage and length of sleeves are critical. Layering is common practice. Little tops are worn on top of tight, longsleeved shirts. Some shirts come with fake double sleeves and cleavage. This creates the illusion of two tops worn at once, although there is only the amount of fabric that is visible. The current fashion has created some necessary accessories. There are separate sleeves, which are of stockinglike material. The can be worn with any top with too short sleeves. There is also the equivalent for the midriff, a kind of chastity belt. If the pants ride too low and the slightly too short top are in danger of revealing bare skin, this 'chastity belt' solves the problem. It's also made of a stretchy material, and covers the entire stomach from below where the pants end all the way to the bra.

Color does matter

Egyptians love colors. They are crucial in clothing. Women combine different colors without prejudice. Usually an outfit utilizes two main colors. The entity is designed around this colorscheme. I am so Caironized these days that few combinations startle me: pink and khaki - cute and modern, orange and purple - nice and spunky, brown and lime - what a refreshing combo. Women are very specific with every detail. The shirt, the skirt - or pants, the headscarf - or scarves, the shoes, the purse, the jewellery, possible sleeves and the pins securing the higab are all carefully coordinated. One headscarf has been replaced by an arrangement of many different scarves. Young women want to put their skill on display and wear a complex work of art created with even three scarves, each in a different color.

One time when exiting the subway I saw a middle-aged woman standing on the street, apparently just waiting for someone. She was dressed in a dark pant suit. The higab, the purse and other accessories were bright turquoise. The woman seemed very proud of her appearance and everything was indeed well put together - even the turquoise shib shib, which were two sizes too small. I couldn't even imagine walking in shoes that left an inch of my heels hanging outside.

Mine, yours, ours

Egyptians own everything collectively. Being cheap is a vice, and among family borrowing is an everyday thing. It's good to ask the owner's permission, but often it's forgotten, sometimes in purpose. Many Egyptians don't have as many belongings as we do in the West. There just isn't as much money to spend, although things are cheaper than in our neighborhoods. The wardrobe of the whole family often fits into one or two closets and everyone gets what they need from there. By borrowing the women can create several different outfits. Sometimes the scarf belongs to the older sister, the purse to mom and the skirt to a cousin. Skirt, pant and shirt sizes aren't too important. A pair of pants that's too big can quickly be stiched up and made a couple of inches smaller at the waist and the hips. Skirts that are too long can be rolled up at the waist. Clothes which are too small will slowly stretch out to the misfortune of the original owner.

Inside the makeup bag

The last, but not least, is the face. It took me time to learn and to understand how Egyptian women do their makeup. They put it on in much bigger amounts and it is precisely matched with the color of the clothes. Where I'm from their eye makeup would be suitable for a night out, there is plenty of eyeliner and enough glitter to share. Lips are clearly exaggerated. In my opinion it is at times over the top. From the front the lipliner might still look good, but from the side it's outrageous. The lipstick is much lighter than the lipliner. This look was fashionable in the West some ten years ago. The strangest detail in the makeup has to do with blush. It's also applied on the tip of the nose. Doing this of course creates an illusion of a smaller nose and whiter skin around the eyes. It basically brings out the eyes. To me it just resembles a drunk person, since those who drink a lot tend to develop a red nose.

Fancy clothes are for the ugly

My grandfather used this expression that he learned from his own mother whenever he saw me put on makeup. Sometimes I did my nails in purpose when visiting my grandparents. This is clearly not an Arabic proverb. Here it is a virtue to do yourself up, as long as it is done within certain boundaries.




Photo by Päivi Arvonen

Web Design by
Michelle Joyce