While in Egypt I interviewed several local Muslim women on the topic of sex, a universal subject that often transcends language – but still translates differently according to cultural or social traditions. Then I had some interesting body-conscious experiences of my own involving both overexposure and underexposure on the streets of Cairo.
The women I interviewed – who were in their 20s and 30s – said that they do not feel any lack of freedom in Egypt, because they not only agree with the rules for women but they actually like them. Even if they were to move to America, they explained, and could do whatever they wanted, they would choose to have no male friends, not date, be home before dark, and wear the hijab (headscarf).
Cairo Sex Chat
As far as body image is concerned, Islamic women in general are not big fans of plastic surgery, because they believe that Allah gave them the body and face that He wanted them to have. But there are exceptions, and sometimes not-so-religious women who can afford to, will undergo cosmetic surgery.
And while I found that women were not at all embarrassed about their bodies, they were in fact embarrassed to talk about their bodies. The single women were also ashamed of talking about sex. They cannot even meet a man for a cup of coffee in broad daylight without risking gossip that would ruin their chances of marriage.
Those who were married, on the other hand, were comfortable talking about sex because once they got married they enjoyed a different kind of freedom. The Koran says that within marriage sex is a positive thing. Then again, even married women told me that they were only comfortable doing things in the bedroom that “were within the norm of making babies.” (Yeah, you get the picture.)
Despite the fact that so many Egyptians look forward to marriage, the current economic and demographic challenges they face make it extremely difficult. The women want a man who can support them and men want money to support their wives, but many people barely earn enough to provide for themselves – while working two or more jobs. Plus, in Egypt there are now twice as many women as men at the marrying age – so for women it is doubly difficult to find a suitable marriage partner.
Had I been a local Cairo woman looking for a nice fellow to marry I might have totally wrecked my chances – and blown out the seams of my reputation.
Every morning at the same time I walked to my Arabic language class, passing many of the same people including a friendly merchant who always greeted me. But one day he called after me, “Miss! Miss!” so I ignored him and walked faster, thinking he was just trying to sell me something.
As I pressed on through the thick crowds and crazy traffic with nonstop honking horns, I suddenly felt someone’s hand on me. It was the shopkeeper, speaking in urgent Arabic. Startled, I told him emphatically that I was in a hurry and turned to escape, but he grabbed my arm and stopped me.
Then he pointed to the new skirt I had just purchased the day before. I looked down, and to my embarrassment saw that the zipper was wide open, revealing a come-hither slice of thigh and hip – plus a teasing peek of pink panties that were color-coordinated with my blushing face.
I thanked him profusely, tugged on my top to pull it down over the exposed area, and blocked the view with my large computer satchel.
A Stitch in Time
When I got to class I told my teacher what had happened and she said it was typical because of the poor quality of clothes sold in Cairo. She recommended her tailor, Ahmed, and I made a beeline for his shop.
Ahmed consulted his colleague, who was also named Ahmed, and the two debated the issue while studying it rather intently. Eventually a third Ahmed arrived, carrying a large white bed sheet.
“Here, Miss. Put this around you and please remove your skirt.”
Looking around the tiny room – crowded with a trio of overly attentive Ahmeds – I declined and instead stepped into an adjoining closet filled with extra light bulbs, broken plumbing pipes, and bolts of cloth. I slipped out my skirt and emerged wrapped in the sheet that covered me to the ankles.
Then I sat in the shop and waited as the three Ahmeds argued passionately about button placement. Eventually Ahmed #1 took charge, gave the skirt a temporary fix to get me back to school, and the drama ended.