In recent months, there have been a plethora of stories emerging from Egypt, in which women’s clothing and bodies have been policed.
Women have been arrested, barred and publicly condemned for either being too skimpily or too conservatively dressed – and contrary to popular assumptions, these attacks have largely not come from religious bodies, but rather from the so-called secular state and private businesses.
Women’s Bodies and the Secular Egyptian State
As recently as earlier this week, the Egyptian Syndicate of Musical Professions announced a ban on “revealing outfits” worn by singers on stage in the name of “recommitting to Egyptian values and tradition”, according to syndicate chief Ahmed Ramadan.
Under the new regulation, performers who are members of the syndicate – or who have a permit – will be banned from performing in Egypt if they are seen on stage in “inappropriate” clothing.
Typically, the legislation appears specifically to focus on women, with once again the burden of “Egyptian values” and national morality being unfairly borne exclusively by women’s bodies.
The decision by the Syndicate follows a series of incidents in which women have been arrested and convicted for immorality following clothing controversies. One of Egypt’s most well-known belly dancers, Safinaz, was sentenced to six months imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of EGP 15,000 by the Cairo Misdemeanour Court, for dancing in a dress designed like the Egyptian flag.
In wearing the dress, Safinaz was accused of insulting Egypt, despite her protestation that “it was a message of love to Egypt and its people.” Far from an obscure figure, Safinaz is known for having performed at high status weddings, and appearing in several Egyptian movies.
Whatever Safinaz’s intentions were, the response of Egypt’s judicial system is a manifestation of a historical and patriarchal connection made between national honour and women’s bodies. Indeed, it is commonly misconceived that pressures on women to dress conservatively come solely from Egypt’s religious culture – the nation state, which in Egypt has traditionally been secular, often pushes a similar trope of restrained female sexuality as being reflective of a “dignified” nation. Note for example, that neither God nor religion is invoked in the accusations against Safinaz (or Salma El Fouly, discussed below).
In a similar vein, earlier this year, Egyptian performer Salma El-Fouly was arrested after dancing seductively and wearing revealing clothing in the “Seib Eidy” (Let Go Of My Hand) music video – a story which reached international headlines. Much like Safinaz, she was accused of “inciting debauchery and immorality” and “harming public morals.”
The song, which accompanies the video, narrates the story of a woman – El Fouly – being sexually harassed by a man – El Sedeki – whilst riding in the mixed carriage of Cairo’s metro. After being angrily told off by El Fouly’s character, El Sedeki insults her, calling her a “whore.” El Fouly is then shown to secretly love and enjoy the abusive attention that she is receiving (a sentiment that is decisively not shared by women in Egypt and worldwide who suffer sexual harassment in public spaces and on public transport.)
It is highly telling that, in a video rife with a misogynistic, dangerous message, that apologises for sexual assault and is therefore genuinely harmful to the public (women specifically), it is a woman’s low neckline that drew the state’s attention for “harming public morals.” The message here is that whilst there is a – what one can only consider obsessive – focus on women’s clothes, there is little concern regarding the safety and wellbeing of women’s bodies, be it in public or private spaces.
On the other side of the spectrum, there has also been increasing trend of what can be termed “veil phobia,” particularly in urban, upper class areas in Cairo. It is becoming increasingly commonplace to hear stories of women choosing to wear the veil being turned away from clubs and bars – most famously by The Lemon Tree & Co, located in the up-scale Zamalek district. Indeed, this establishment quite bluntly states its discriminatory policy, declaring, “no hijab is allowed after 6pm.”
It is not entirely clear what is behind such bizarre policies. A personal guess would be that it is to maintain a “modern”, cosmopolitan and “Westernised” image – something that is inextricably connected amongst Egypt’s urban elite with notions of class.
Another argument often made in defence of these private businesses, which place such undesired symbolic value on what a woman chooses to wear, is that if a woman is wearing the veil and is a Muslim, she should not be in a place that serves alcohol. Once again, this statement is patronising and patriarchal, as it denies the ability of Muslim women to make their own judgements on how to navigate their religious beliefs – a right that entirely belongs to them.
The government has responded in a more respectful way to this trend. The Minister of Tourism Khaled Abbas Rami personally promised to shut down any restaurants and ‘tourism facilities’ that are found to be banning women dressed in the headscarf from service.
Such policing of women’s clothing is of course not unique to Egypt. France’s famous, and racist, veil ban places a similar burden of “national identity and values” on (primarily Muslim) women’s bodies. Earlier this year, the hysteria surrounding this issue saw a French Muslim schoolgirl being sent home from school for her skirt being “too long.” In fact, throughout the world, it is seen as reasonable and commonplace to judge the inherent nature and “morality” of a woman’s character by the clothing she wears, in a way that is simply not extended to her male counterparts.
Whether a woman is being criticised for dressing too scantily, or too conservatively, and whether it is in the name of “public morality”, “national honour” or “secularism,” there is one consistent message being delivered: that it is not a woman’s place to make a decision as simple as what to put on her body. Indeed, it is clear that women’s bodies are not for them to own, but are treated as canvases on which patriarchal nations, states and even private businesses can define themselves. Such tropes deny women their agency despite often claiming to be protecting them – be it from “indecency” or from their own religion.