Undressing Um Ahmad: Egyptian women between the bikini and the burquaa'

Egypt's new First Lady is covered, a first in the history of this country. Just as her Muslim Brotherhood husband has raised more than a few worries on the secularity of the state; the way his wife dresses is worrying many over the "image" of Egyptian women

Photo of Um Ahmad next to photo of Queen Nariman

Read this article in Arabic.

As we got out of the hotel on the Nile where we were dressing the beautiful bride, a dear friend of mine who was having her wedding party, my heart slipped a beat. Here we are, 8 women - the bride dressed in a beautiful gown and wrapped in a thin shawl and 7 others wearing dresses and heels, carrying flowers - crossing the street. I wasn't really scared of being run over; rather I was scared of who would grab what; if you know what I mean.

Sexual harassment in the streets of Cairo is something all women face no matter what they are dressed in; in various degrees of course. But to be dressed and made up and crossing the streets is something that should worry you; you'd be thinking that perhaps a few body guards would've been a great help. We were all thinking of how to get on the other side in one piece - it was thankfully only a few whistles and a few "babes" that were thrown our way. Considering how scary the situation was, I doubt that any of the eight of us was really thinking of Um Ahmad as we crossed the street after the cars so graciously stopped – except for myself.

I've been thinking of Um Ahmad a lot recently.

After my initial shock when I saw her dressed in a khimar (a long veil that covers the head and upper body till right before the knees), I thought of her sitting with Carla Bruni crooning – it was an interesting vision, but then I remembered that Sarkozy lost to Hollande.

I think of Um Ahmad more than I think of her husband.

Of course if you don't know Um Ahmad, you must be wondering why on earth am I thinking of her or her husband. Her husband happens to be Dr. Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's elected president after the elections last month. Um Ahmad is his wife: Naglaa Ali Mahmoud.

Whenever anybody speaks of this woman, who refuses to be called the First Lady and wishes to stay in her own home instead of moving to the Presidential Palace, I see her face. I hadn't really seen her face the first couple of times I saw her picture; I could not see beyond her khimar. After I got used to her attire, and after I laughed when I heard she wanted to be called Um Ahmed which means mother of Ahmad, her eldest, – I thought she was cute – I began seeing her face. Pleasant, calm looking, her eyes sparkle when she smiles, she blushes in the interviews I've watched for her; she looks like a woman whom I would be standing next to as I am buying some cucumbers.

But suddenly this woman has become food for thought for everyone. There are those who defend her saying that she is like all of our mothers and grandmothers. There are those who are disgusted and disgraced that a woman who dresses in such a manner would be a representation of Egypt and of course Egyptian women. It’s a class thing.

The more I think of Um Ahmad and the jokes that were made about her, the more I realize that it's not really about her.

I'll go some months back; to the time when Salafist Hazem Salah Abu Ismael was the talk of the town. I remember watching him on one of the many ridiculous and at times revolting talk shows and I remember a phone call he received from a woman. This woman was obviously middle class, educated and Muslim. She told him that she was a moderate Muslim, who prayed, fasted and loved her religion but was not veiled; so how can he come and decide for her what to wear when her relationship with God was a very personal matter that has nothing to do with clothes or with him for that matter. Typical of Abu Ismael, he didn't really give a coherent reply. The next day, whenever anybody spoke of this interview or any of the hundreds he had, there would be a very solid concern on the two Bs: booze and of course bikinis.

The people became more and more scared of the Salafist wave back then, which practically threatens everything not just the beer; they were very concerned about how the Salafist rule would dress women. There was a collective worry that women wouldn't be able to wear bathing suits or bikinis on the beaches anymore. I think it must've kept some men up at night too. It was beyond our comprehension, that the Salafists would come and tell us how to dress our women.

We Egyptians are raised on paradoxes.

Most of the women who do not approve of the way Um Ahmad dresses are concerned about a woman like that not accepting them. I was like that at the beginning before I bonded with the thought of Um Ahmad. I wanted her to accept me the way I am but I was not able to accept her for who she is and how she dresses. We don't want to be told how to dress; but we want to tell Um Ahmad that she should dress in certain way because she represents Egyptian women.

We Egyptians love representations.

In more than one article about Ms. Naglaa Ali, there were young women quoted that they cannot accept that this woman is their representative. Men and women were concerned on how this would affect the way the West would view Egyptian women as backward and returning to the Middle Ages. The obvious question is, was Ms. Suzanne Mubarak, a representative of those who reject Ms. Ali? The more I read about Ms. Ali, the more it hits me how deep the conviction that women are objects to be told how to dress because they represent something: a country, other women, a religion, their family, their up brining and so on and so on. And the saddest thing is the women are propagating this thought without realizing its danger.

Um Ahmad brings out the paradoxes with which we live our lives in this society.

As she stands for some as regressive, and against woman rights, and women progression in Egypt, she is the symbol of the proper woman by others. Azza El Garf, a member of Parliament (we can't really tell if it's still a Parliament or they've changed their minds again) and the Muslim Brotherhood who herself was advocating for the legalization of the Female Genital Mutilation Law and the banning of khule' (a law which allows a woman to go to court to annul the marriage if her husband refuses to divorce her) is quoted in an article speaking of favor of Ms. Ali. What El Garf said in the article was that Ms. Ali is "a true Egyptian woman" by being such a devoted wife and by standing by her husband while knowing her limits.

Poor Um Ahmad, it seems like she is always seen as standing for something or another but never for who she really is.

 In this respect, I see Um Ahmad the everyday Egyptian woman. Women in this society have been fighting against so many things; some for the right of education, some for the ability to get a job to help feed her children, others for some help from their spouses, others for custody, or divorce, some for the right to independency, for the freedom of walking down the street without being harassed and then accused of being dressed inappropriately. And in every fight, they are told to back down or to choose another route because they distorting the image of the proper woman.

Um Ahmad is accused of distorting the image of the Egyptian "lady".

I sometimes wonder, if we undress Um Ahmad to make her look like a "lady", coiffed hair, painted nails, dress or a suit, heels, would we Egyptian women feel better about ourselves? Would we feel empowered because the woman who is representing us is a progressed fashionable woman with taste? 

I don't think we would. We would've had different jokes about her. We wouldn’t be calling her Um Ahmad but Madame Morsi maybe. But we would still be waiting for someone to tell us how to dress according to a patriarchal mentality that wants to see us either in a bikini or a burquaa' (face cover): in both cases objectified to mannequins.

I remember a night before a performance where we actors were standing by the side of the auditorium where we would come in after the audience and we were discussing the action Parliament members have taken for the Revolution. I said that they were useless; that housewives were more productive than they are. My friend Mostafa said, "Typical, you women complain of patriarchy when you propagate it more than anyone else". I laughed; I said that I knew that but that I was trying to make a point by being patriarchal but deep down inside I was ashamed of that slip of a tongue.

Um Ahmad, we've got a long way to go.

 

About the author

Zainab Magdy was born in Giza, Egypt, and is doing an MA in Performance Theory at Cairo University where she is a teaching assistant. She has been part of writing and storytelling workshops with a gender sensitive perspective since 2009. She has been acting in theatre since 2007 and has recently taken on playwriting and is now part of a new writing and performance project: "The Odd Ducks".