Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Advice for female travellers to Cairo, Part1- What to wear in Cairo...

It always seems to be an issue... and to this day  i still have to double check every outfit before i leave the house to see how Cairo proof it is....

I googled ‘what to wear in Egypt’ and found this website which is very interesting.. http://www.journeywoman.com/ccc/ccc-e.html . but many of the comments i don’t really agree with in regards to clothing suggestions. Here are my thoughts on the subject;

Lorna’s Guide for women regarding daytime clothing in Cairo!

-         The most common question- do I need to cover my hair? NO. You don’t, unless you are going to visit mosques. In which case a scarf/ shawl kept in your bag will do the job when you get there... In fact a blonde friend of mine said that she got even more unwanted attention when she wore a hijab, since the men seemed to think that a foreign muslim woman was an even greater ‘catch’. On the hair note- I have heard from various people ideas of wisdom of going outside with wet hair. It means you are just out the shower, and obviously you had sex just before that shower so obviously you want it again, with any man on the street that asks. I am not sure i totally agree with that pattern of thinking.... but if you are not feeling comfortable in your own skin it might be best not to risk it! I do however find a big difference if I go out with my hair down or pinned back. If you have long hair, especially if it is blonde or red, then its a good idea to clip it back when on the street. The swishing attracts more attention and some may feel they have the right to touch it (usually women who do this!)

-          Trousers- an obvious good choice? Yes, if they are not transparent.... beware especially of white cotton/linen! Remember that many materials which look opaque in a shop mirror may well be transparent under strong sunlight. These same items may be totally fine for wearing at night in Cairo. Jeans i always thought were the worst choice because they are heavy in the heat, but actually- assuming they are not too tight.. they often are my favourite choice since you look less like a tourist, and also because they don’t show the sweat!

-          Shorts- No.... unless you are in a holiday resort eg sharm or somewhere- Not for Cairo. In fact I wouldn’t wear cut off jeans or skirts that are above knee height at all. (actually not a good choice for men either unless very long shorts!!!)

-          Skirts- long- fine- but check for the see-through test!!! Knee length- great- but if they are full skirts beware since Cairo can be windy! Oh and be careful getting in and out of taxi’s in even below the knee skirts! If it is a wrap around skirt- pin it! The wind and getting into taxi’s etc could have you showing a lot more flesh that you intended- and believe me- it will be noticed!

-          Whether it’s a skirt or trousers, or jeans.... make sure if they sit low on your hips that your top is long enough to cover them..... exposed belly/hip/ lower back will attract unwanted attention from male and female! No bare bellies in Cairo (even us dancers and still supposed to wear the body stocking on stage remember!)

-          Cleavage is a no- no. Check all your tops.... what might be ok and normal amount of cleavage in uk or wherever is probably not in Cairo. If you can see any line, any bump on your chest that could distinguish you from a man, then have it covered! I often wear vest tops under lower cut tops to make sure this is kept under wraps. A little cropped top can also be worn so you cover the cleavage but don’t add to many layers onto an already warm outside for Cairo temperatures.  Remember the bending down to speak to taxi drivers test too.................!!!

-          Dresses are usually fine, assuming they have sleeves, no cleavage and below knee... which is often not the case. However – don’t panic – you can wear your summer dresses if you are ok wearing leggings underneath if they are a little short (or at risk of blowing up!) or a little bolero top to give you arms if it’s a strappy one.

-          Leggings- If it’s a tight mini dress that you wear with leggings- try to ensure that it really does cover your bum and you are not having to pull it down all the time- otherwise you will look like you are intentionally drawing eyes (and potentially hands) to that area! Leggings are seen by the majority of Egyptian women and therefore men as an item of underwear. They are not a substitute for trousers. They show too much detail!

-          Most of these suggestions are for the main areas in Cairo that I am in daily, Mohandiseen, Zamalek, Maadi. These areas have a large proportion of foreigners and ‘westernised’ Egyptians. If you are going to be downtown (where the museam is) or in more ‘local’ (baladi) areas, including el Hussain (where the khan el Khalili bazaar is) then i recommend less flesh on show... ie full length trousers/jeans/skirt rather then to the knee and maybe a long sleeve too.

-          This comment is for your own health and comfort rather than what others might think. Wear as much natural fibres as possible. It does get hot and sweaty in Cairo. Nylon is hotter to wear than cotton! This is another reason i like jeans!
-          T-shirts.... totally fine.... most places in Cairo. Even tightly fitted- as long as they cover armpits (which are frowned upon... but i suspect that has more to do with a lack of use of deodorant in Egypt than with the flesh itself!!!) and are long enough to cover the top of your jeans or whatever. Stappy tops are a no-no in public too (in Cairo remember- these things are fine places like sharm.)

-          A big baggy blouse is fine... as long as it’s not see-through.... bra straps on show are like wearing your bra in public. Not a good idea. Also check that the buttons don’t gape in any blouse you wear.... otherwise you’ll have some strange conversations while people, i mean men, try to see through the gaps!!!

-          Baggy verses tight. You would think that things which show off your curves more would get you more attention... you are right- but its attention the way Egyptian women get attention too. So it depends – if you want to look less like a tourist the tighter clothes are better! I have a wardrobe full of clothes i rarely wear now that i bought to come to Cairo on previous trips before I moved here,  linen trousers and tunic style tops that scream ‘agnabi ‘ (foreigner!).   I get less hassle in the streets here in Jeans and a t-shirt than if i wear baggy skirt and top. I might look sexier, but i also look more like I belong! It’s a fine balancing act!

-          Colour. Certain colours will draw the eye more. Red is used in advertising for that very reason. A tight black t- shirt will attract a lot less attention than a red one! Remember if you go for white that it should be thick enough cotton to mask the bra strap!!!!

-          A solution to see through skirts /trousers- a top or scarf tied round your hips....? NO!!!! This makes your hips and the hip movement more obvious and you will attract MORE comments. (that is why we tie something there when we bellydance!!!)

-          Skin on show..... a little is ok, ie arms is ok, lower legs is ok, upper chest is ok... but if you have all three on show... you’ll be commented on!

-          Shoes. High heels when you go out at night can be a liability. The streets are very uneven- so if you have any amount of walking to do, then wear a pair of ‘ship ship’ (flip flops)  to get you there and then change into your heels on arrival- this will also protect your shoes from damage!!! High heels lift you bum and make it swing- its why we wear them.... so if this brings extra attention it might not be a good idea for that reason too!

-          Make up. If you wear a lot of make up, you may stand out more, especially during the day. The heavier the make-up the looser the character of the girl wearing it..... or at least that’s how it seems to work in the minds of many here, unfortunately. Go light... or add the lipstick when you arrive at the club!

-          Body shape counts. In Cairo the curvy woman is the goddess. Showing off those curves or swinging them about will attract a lot of comments. In our lives we tend to try and dress to show off and accentuate our body shape. In Cairo during the day anyway, i try and do the opposite, and my curves aren’t big to begin with! I definitely dress down for Cairo streets... and it makes a difference!

Night time rules differ. If you are going to a westernised bar/club/ hotel/ restaurant you can wear whatever you want inside and you will often see very skimpy outfits. Just cover up to get there and home!!!

The best investments i ever made clothes wise in Cairo? Lots of large shawls and also very long, loose-fitting light cotton cardigan type tops which i usually pin onto me before i go out each night!

Tip for buying holiday clothes so you don't stick out so much- wear clothes you would normally wear at home- ie dont go out and buy a linen safari suit (unless thats your style in your own country of course!). Be mindful of sleeve length, body length of tops, neckline, and leg length of skirts , dresses and cropped trousers. Check material content (ie natural is better). Check transparency! Lacy/patterned bras that show through clothes are a bad idea too!

oh- and don't ever think you'll just buy important items here eg bikini or underwear- if you can find something you would be seen dead in and won't make your hair stand on end from static- chances are it has the 100% import tax on it!!
To attract a little less attention when you go out at night i know some women (Egyptians) who will remove chunky or shiny jewellery and only put it on once they arrive at their destination. If you are out and you see Egyptian girls dressed in a revealing, western manner- they probably came by car, they did not arrive by taxi!

A lot of what i read about for how to dress here comments on respecting people’s culture. There is an element to that of course. But really, for me its about reducing the hassle in the street. We will always get unwanted attention just because we are foreign, but you can reduce it by covering up somewhat. It goes to that same horrible WRONG argument you used to hear a lot in the west some years back that if a woman was wearing a mini skirt or something sexy like that, and attacked then she was 'asking for it' and somehow deserved it?  Also I notice if I cover, then the looks from women are usually admiring, but if i don’t they look at you like you are the devil herself. If anything bad was to happen, I’d like to think that the women at least would stand by me if I try to dress ‘normally’.  I hope i never have the occasion to test that theory!

Don’t panic if you are planning a trip to Cairo and this has worried you even more.... just think lots of layers!!! Oh and remember if you are coming in summer , although it may be 40deg in day and 30 at night... you will still need something to keep you warm in restaurants since they usually set their air conditioning units to 16 deg!!!!!

Like I said- i live in my jeans with a long length t-shirt. The same as I would probably wear in the UK. It might be Egypt- but you don’t have to mummify yourself!


Marie Buckleygray said...

Great advice Lorna! I especially like your sign off and it's great to hear how well you are getting on over there. Things seem to have moved on so much since I was in Cairo with you. It's great to read :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your article. I have lived in the U.S. and Ireland my entire life and am afraid of visiting my family in Cairo this week as I'm curvy, tattooed and feel like I'm going to be looked upon as a walking sex doll (which is what most people will lead you to believe any young pretty woman in egypt is). I think it bears reminding readers that the class divide is also an issue with dress code. My family is wealthy with private cars and access to nicer establishments so they can dress more freely and even drink and smoke shisha, whereas the less fortunate women have to put more emphasis on "purity" and cover more and cannot not go out at night.. I am told this is the same reason why most Egyptian women (90%) suffer female genital mutilation while the 10% wealthier families have no need to put their daughters through this practice... Egypt is an interesting place! Congratulations on paving your way there and belly dancing is so much fun!