03 egypt

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Egypt sees itself, and is seen, as part of Africa and also the Middle East. The Muslim Arab invasion of 640-2 was followed by a very gradual conversion to Islam. Nominally part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 – 1914, Egypt was briefly invaded by the French in 1798/9, and fought over by the British. In the early 19th century, nationalist ruler Mohammed Ali initiated a major modernisation programme. Egypt was occupied by the British in 1882, a sovereign state in 1922, and the British finally left after World War II. In 1952 the monarchy was overthrown. Egypt has a population of 70 million, 90% Muslim and 10% Coptic Christian, other Christian and Jews. Minority ethnic groups include Nubians, Bedouins, and Arab and Nilotic nomads.

Dress History : 

Dress History A wealth of images exists of women in Pharaonic, Greek and Roman Egypt, but from 4th to 18th centuries AD almost none. The upper, urban classes during the Ottoman Empire would have worn similar styles to those in Turkey. The visual record of the variety of dress in Egypt starts with the early European travellers.


Early 16th century Cairo “Women’s fashions are luxurious and they go out adorned with jewellery: these women are pretentious and pay great attention to hearsay, to the extent that, if any one of them who refuses to weave, stitch or cook, her husband has no choice but to buy ready cooked food. Few people cook their food at home, except large families … The women enjoy great freedom and independence. When the husband goes out to his shop, his wife gets dressed and perfumed, and rides her donkey to leisure in the town, visiting her relatives and friends.” al-Hasan al-Wazzani, Leo Africanus


This picture probably gives a most realistic, less romanticised, portrayal of Cairo harem dress in the mid 19th century because the painter was a woman who spent some months in Cairo – the American artist Margaretta Burr. Interior of a Hareem, 1846, Women Art and Society, Whitney Chadwick, 1996


Typical outdoor dress worn by women going to the hamam (public baths). Cairo, late 19th century, H Béchard


“Veiling and the harem system were social conventions connected with economic standing. They had nothing whatsoever to do with Islam.” Introduction to Huda Shaarawi’s Harem Years, Margot Badran, 1986


Lower class working women of Cairo, early 20th century. Postcard


“Egyptian dress can be roughly divided in two major subdivisions: that worn by the masses of the “traditional” social classes, both rural and urban, and that worn by the educated, mostly urban, classes. The first is a distinctively native Egyptian dress and the second corresponds in general features with international styles. One way to distinguish these two styles is to call them “traditional” and “modern” which in essence is how many Egyptians think of them. To make such easy distinctions, however, glosses over the fact that both are contemporary styles and both include many features that are continuously in the process of change. Both also follow certain conventions that have existed for long periods of time in Egyptian society.” Reveal and Conceal – Dress in Contemporary Egypt, Andrea B. Rugh, 1986


Wealthier women of Cairo would always have had a choice of clothes – both indoor and outdoor – clearly seen in shoes and veils. Ornamented black veils. Only the one on the right is represented in its whole length. Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, E. W. Lane, 1836


Casting His Eye – a little comedy outside the railway station in Cairo. c. 1905. Oriental Cairo, Douglas Sladen, 1911


Duriya Fahmi, feminist intellectual and writer (left), with friends, Cairo, 1919-20. coll. Mona Fikri, Daughters of the Nile, ed. Hind Wassef and Nadia Wassef, 2001


“The burko’ (face veil) and shoes are most common in Cairo, and are also worn by many of the women throughout Lower Egypt; but in Upper Egypt, the burko’ is very seldom seen, and shoes are scarcely less uncommon. To supply the place of the former, when necessary, a portion of the tarhah is drawn before the face, so as to conceal nearly all the countenance excepting one eye. Many of the women of the lower orders, even in the metropolis, never conceal their faces.” Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Edward William Lane, 1836


Huda Sha´rawi publicly removed her veil at Cairo station in 1923 after returning from an international feminist conference in Rome. Although this symbolic gesture had massive reverberations in Cairo and beyond, for the fellāhīn (Egyptian peasant), Muslim or Copt, it was life as usual.


Coptic village women of Upper Egypt visiting the graves of their dead relatives in their Coptic cemetery on Yom el-Ghitas, 1920-26. Fellāhīn of Upper Egypt, Winifred S. Blackman, 1927 “The modern Copt has become from head to foot, in manners, language, and spirit, a Moslem, however unwilling he may be to recognise the fact. His dress is like that of the rest of the people, except he prefers darker materials.” Upper Egypt – its people and its products, C.B. Klunzinger, 1878

Women in Political Struggle: 

Women in Political Struggle Acceptable, respectable dress for women, mainly Muslim and middle-class, is reflected in the many images of women involved in political and social change.


“Nationalism, in Egypt as elsewhere in the Arab world, was the key to the legitimacy of the women’s movement in the eyes of both politicians and the public.” Images of Women, Sarah Graham-Brown, 1988


Huda Sha‘rawi with members of the Egyptian Feminist Union, 1940s. Hawa’ al-gadida, Daughters of the Nile, 2001 Celebrating political rights gained, 1956. Women are carrying posters of Huda Sha‘rawi and Umm Saber, the first Egyptian woman ‘martyr’ killed by the British in 1919. Hawa’ al-gadida, Daughters of the Nile, 2001

Modes and Codes: 

Modes and Codes “The return of the veil, with a venom, in contemporary Egypt speaks volumes. Western visitors mistakenly assume that the female Islamic dress code is the traditional dress of Egyptian women. While historically, the Islamic dress code has influenced fashion in Egypt, there is no such thing as a universal Islamic uniform. Head-covering, the hijab, as a form of resistance to Western cultural hegemony is a relatively new phenomenon. It gave an entirely new meaning to identity politics. The niqab has also become a symbol for communication, or lack of it. An increasing number of urban women now shroud themselves in shapeless gowns in muted colours or severe black.” No question of costume, Gamal Nkrumah, Al Ahram Weekly, September 2002


The dress of modern urban women covers the full spectrum from full cover-up with a niqab to full cover-up with face make-up.


“There are several versions of the Islamic costume, some of which are motivated less by religion and more by fashion. Older women, for example, find longer dresses and hair-covering turbans more comfortable and flattering and if asked will answer that while inspired by what they consider the precepts of their religion to dress modestly, they dress in this way mainly because it has become fashionable in their circles to do so. Such a modified style, though reaching to the ankles and the wrists, is characterized often by its closer fit. To purists of the fundamentalist movement it is too revealing of the figure. The “standard fundamentalist” version flows from the shoulder to ankle, usually in one sombre color, concealing the outlines of the figure as completely as possible. The head covering surrounds the face like a nun’s cowl and falls loosely to the shoulder. A subsidized version of this style is sold by fundamentalist organizations for 8EL ($12), making it very economical.” Family in Contemporary Egypt, Andrea B.Rugh, 1984

Everyday Clothes: 

Everyday Clothes Outdoors - in street, farm or desert – Egypt’s distinct ethnic groups still wear their traditional clothes while other women continue to express their personalities through items and details of dress.


Indoors, women’s clothes continue to illustrate similarity and difference


This section is a ‘case study’ – looking closely at some of the women in a small rural community. The same exercise could be done in most areas of the countries in this exhibition. Personal photos, text and research by Caroline Simpson. All these women are from the village of Qurna, on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor – they were born there, and with few exceptions have never travelled far except in some cases to Mecca. The village is around, near and on the tombs and temples of Ancient Egypt which are visited by thousands of tourists daily. Despite this, Qurna is a very traditional Upper Egyptian village, with strong extended families and retention of old social customs. What can we learn of these women’s lives in what they wear, knowing some of the reasons behind each photo?


History The people of Qurna are descendants of historic indigenous communities plus Bedouin Arab, a few Berbers and a few people from the balad es-Sudan. Though once a very important Coptic Christian area, the local community gradually converted to Islam and now there is only a small minority of Coptic families. The traditional occupation is farming, but a revival of ancient/new crafts, archaeological excavation, and other trades associated with heritage and mass tourism involve the majority of the adult population in some way.


“Sex is another criteria for two definite social groups: the world of men and the world of women. In this community it is unthinkable to have free mixing between the two worlds, or that a thing done by one sex can also be done by a member of the other sex. …. While women are expected to adorn themselves with earrings, nose rings, kohl for the eyes, finger rings, anklets, henna for the palms (almost an ornament in every sense), men are supposed to refrain. Moreover while men shave or cut their hair, women leave it to grow as long as possible and never cut it. While men wear pants, women do not; while women’s speech is usually sprinkled with words in the diminutive, men are not expected to follow this habit; while women carry things on their heads, men never do so, and only carry things either in their hands, or on the back or shoulders…..” Growing up in an Egyptian Village – Silwa, Province of Aswan, Hamed Ammar, 1954


Hajja Ayesha, widow for over 20 years, raised three children alone. Very devout and prays at every prayer time, always wears black and is covered indoors and out. No schooling, not literate, goes nearly every day to farm her small parcel of land 1.5 km away and owns large house. Allowed me to photograph her after four years’ acquaintance providing no-one in the village sees the photo. Fatima, daughter of Ayesha, in their courtyard wearing clothes bought specially for the Eid. She might go visiting but more likely hopes to be visited by friends. Mid-30s and single, seldom goes beyond the courtyard gate, sometimes visits her next-door neighbours, and very infrequently goes to the weekly market 100 metres away. When a small child with her father she used to sell to tourists - no schooling, not literate, speaks some English. The photo shows: Woman in her mid-30’s wearing red, black and gold flower patterned dress with a head drape of transparent black with gold edging. Fatima wants a photo of herself in all the finery that possibly no-one but me will ever see. The photo shows: Fatima in her main room, wearing a flower patterned dress on a pink background. Her black hair is in long braids with a golden ‘alice’ band. She looks at herself in a pretty hand mirror wearing a lovely gold and pearl necklace and earrings. Happy with food prepared for two special female guests from Cairo and UK. Fatima chooses to let her hair down. The photo shows: Fatima wears a blue house dress with her long hair down and loosely hanging past her shoulders. Balanced on her raised right hand is a large metal tray heaped with wonderful cut fresh fruit. Mother and daughter.


Mother, daughter and other relatives. Sabah at her home working with her husband. Being the only daughter and eldest child her father did not let her attend school. She now has four children and has not got the time to go to the special school for local women.


Sabah in black over-dress and scarf visiting her parent’s house. Her mother, Fatima, in house dress and scarf casually tied showing her hair at home – also no formal school and not literate, mother of eight children.


Mother, daughter and other relatives Fatima, in best blue dress covered by black over-dress visiting her deceased mother’s house at her holeiya (one year after death commemoration). The female relative on the right now lives in Isma’iliya (Suez Canal) and wears a style never seen on a local women. Waida, Fatima’s sister-in-law, wears her best, new house dress and casually tied scarf to entertain her women relatives. The photo shows: The relative from Isma’iliya is dressed top-to-toe in white. Her head cover is very tightly drawn under her chin and around her face and drapes over her shoulders like a large cape. Waida with cousins who live near by. Waida is at her home, thus showing some hair – while the visiting women have tighter headscarves and wore black over-dresses to come to the house. The photo shows: Three women wearing brightly coloured house dresses.


Photos to add to the family album. Three sisters (relatives of Sabah’s father) in their house high on the hill. The two resident sisters left and right (who seldom go out) are in typical, but best, house dresses and have put on borrowed lipstick, the middle one is just visiting and has taken off her black over-dress. The photo shows: Two women wear bright house dresses that button from foot to neck. The third dress is a smock dress and only buttons to the chest. All dresses have long, full sleeves tightening at the wrist.The two resident sisters have brushed out their hair for the photo.


Hajja Namit, her daughter-in-law, two grandchildren and the pigeons. The Hajja wears the plaits and headscarf of the older women. Neither of these women often goes outside the family property – only on customary visits connected with births, deaths and close family weddings.


In the family courtyard. Hajja Hera – housewife, mother of five, wife of senior monuments’ restorer, 2 years primary education – and her daughter Amal and two sons. Amal – secondary education, student at local college.


Fatima’s sister Amina, married to Fatima’s brother in law, a land-owner and driver for tourists (first cousin marriages are very common). Amina also did well at secondary school and is literate in Arabic and partially also in English. She usually wears simple t-shirts and blouses with trousers or skirts in the home. She occasionally visits local family houses, but is not allowed to go to the local market. Her husband says she can do that when she is old if she wants to. The photo shows: Amina with her arms around two of her sons, wearing a white t-shirt and a simple headscarf is tied at the back of her neck. Amina brushed her hair out specially and put on her smart shoes and skirt so she could have a nice picture for the family album, (1998). The photo shows: Amina is indoors, in her main sitting room, wearing black high heel shoes and a mid-calf length patterned skirt on a black background.


Nadjua, unmarried, University graduate, teaches English at a local school. She put on her work clothes specially to have this photo taken. Normally she changes into more casual, simpler clothes at home, (1997). She is now married to a local pharmacist, has two children, and no longer works as a teacher.


Hajja Sayeda and her two daughters-in-law and the two new grandchildren. The Hajja has her hair in plaits brought to the front with a black scarf in a style of the older Qurna women. They keep a small general shop at the side of the house and asked me to call to take this photo for the family collection.


The sister and sister-in-law of Abd e’Ja’alan, the wood-carver, live low down the hill and often call tourists in to see their house and their brother’s work. It would be inappropriate for them to just wear house dresses. The one on the left wears a black working dress, while the other has on an over-dress with buttons all down the front – both very typical of lower-class and working women.


Fatima in her garden - secondary education, literate in Arabic and partially also in English. Daughter of learned Sheikh, hotel-owner and land-owner. Wife of land-owner and hotel manager. (1996) Before she had children Fatima wore western-style shirts with skirts or slacks (as here), now with two children she normally wears a variant of the typical Egyptian house dress worn by most other local women. Fatima would like to have an office job over in Luxor, but her husband insists she stay at home.


Coptic weaver. There are no visible differences in dress for working Coptic women in the old part of Qurna. Over in Luxor, and for the younger, educated generation, styles have changed with the times.


The camera doesn’t lie, but …… These two photos of local school children show the ‘problems’ of using single images to tell a story. Every image has to be contextualised, and there is more than one person’s version of context per image. The two pictures could be used to ‘prove’ very different things about school children and Islamic observances in Qurna.

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