The ultimate Egyptian fashion experience for me – an L.A. woman – was to do just the opposite of the Cairo girls who wanted to sport a distinctly sexy Western look. I decided to venture over to the conservative side of apparel world.
As actors on the human stage we all have the option to audition for other parts in the social play. That tendency is often heightened while traveling in a foreign country where our primary identity is unknown and we can invent or reinvent ourselves to those we meet.
Sometimes it gets me into trouble, especially if I do it right. Once I found myself in a brothel in Amsterdam, where I learned a thing or two about sex from a real pro. Then there was the time I convinced the doorman of a sex club in Japan that I was the “new girl” and soon found myself in the underground of the underbelly with a fistful of cash.
Hey, now! Those experiences were not what you think. But the repeated visits during my trip to Tahiti – by a libido driven demon from the spirit world welcoming me to his island – were. Believe me; I woke up in the morning with ghost hickeys to prove it.
So by the time I arrived in Egypt – where I stayed for a while to study Arabic – I thought it would be interesting to follow my instincts in a new direction. I temporarily donned the ultra-conservative hijab and arrabiya – the headscarf and full-length gown worn by traditional Muslim women.
Getting beneath the Skin of Egyptian Sexuality
Always the proactive protagonist, I often let my passionate curiosity for life lead the way as I follow it deeper into the realm of human experience.
In Cairo I learned that many women feel that they are more beautiful when wearing the hijab, because it makes them feel more feminine. Beneath the cloak of the hijab and arrabiya women often wear gorgeous clothes and fine jewelry – if they have enough money to afford them – and they enjoy privately sharing those clothes and ornaments with their husbands, immediate family members, and female friends.
But I found that Egyptian men just weren’t accustomed to seeing any female skin. Those who had traveled beyond the Middle East told me they were shocked and astonished – just by seeing underdressed women in print ads or on television.
Men I interviewed admitted that the mere sight of a naked arm, a glimpse of bared shoulder, or a woman’s hair was sexually agitating. I asked why that was, and almost to a man they responded that it was because they had been segregated from women from a young age. Absence must indeed make the heart (and mind and body) grow fonder.
Overdressed for Halloween
No one in Cairo celebrates Halloween, but I decided that in honor of the occasion I would throw on some traditional threads.
So for 48 hours I wore a hijab and arrabiya.
The first thing I noticed was strange looks from newly arrived tourists – punctuated by giggles and rude remarks. They didn’t even know whether I was a visitor or a local; they were just culture-shocked to see a woman dressed in a way that was totally unfamiliar to them.
One especially disturbed woman said “You’re setting women people back 15 years! Move into the 20th century!”
To men, on the other hand, I became virtually invisible. In my regular street clothes I was constantly approached, bombarded with questions, chatted-up, or accosted and hit upon by random guys – whereas under an abeya I was practically nonexistent.
The Transformational Value of Travel
But what was more personally profound and revealing was the unexpected realization of how judgmental I myself was toward other women who wore the full hijab and arrabiya.
When I was dressed in my California clothes, for example, I viewed them with a tinge of negativity. While wearing conservative Muslim garb, however, I became a bit self-righteous and felt an air of condescending purity. I looked at women in tank tops, for instance, and just for a fleeting moment felt disrespect toward them. It was as if I had become a newly deputized member of the fashion police or a Jekyll and Hyde moralist within my own movie.
So what began as an inquisitive Halloween costume experiment turned into, in the end, a spiritual breakthrough of self-realization and a more empathic perspective toward my fellow women.
That is the kind of blessing or gift one sometimes receives through the activity of travel and the process of viewing the world through the lens of another culture. It makes the cost of the ticket a small price to pay for the spiritual insight gained from the journey.