When I moved to Cairo, Egypt in 2010, I started asking myself what wearing a Niqab felt like. I planned to try it at some point, and as usual I waited until the last second, but in the end I finally did it!
Now, assuming that most of the people who read this blog are not from Egypt, I will briefly explain what a Niqab is. Basically, it’s that black dress that the most conservative Muslim women wear (even if this is controversial), covering their hands, bodies and faces, showing only their eyes (and sometimes not even the eyes, keeping a layer of fabric on their face and seeing through it).
Note: some of you may call it “burqa” or “burka” but that’s not an Egyptian thing. So to be clear and cut it short, here’s a nice pic of me in my niqab (what if I told you I was smiling in this picture?):
Now to make it even clearer, not all women wear a Niqab in Cairo, and most of all not all women in Cairo/Egypt are Muslim. I am pointing this out, again, for people who haven’t been there before.
As a foreigner I know exactly how people who never traveled to the Middle East tend to identify the whole area as Arab AND Muslim, when the truth is that not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arabs. Got it?
But of course, if you are coming to Cairo from the so called “Western world”, when you walk in the street what will attract your attention more: a woman wearing a t-shirt and jeans, or a woman with a Niqab? Will you not notice the call to prayer or not? Of course you will! Because this is new for you, fair enough.
Cliché? Maybe. But a much as I would love to wear a Sari when I go to India, or a Kimono when I go to Japan (actually I did) I wanted to wear a Niqab in Egypt. Cool? Cool.
So, what happened?
This happened: I told my dear friend Muhammad about my project, and he said it was really cool and he wanted to be my “partner in crime”. This made everything a million times easier. We met, went to a store, and he bought a Niqab for me (I waited outside). He got the cheapest one, and I think it was a pretty good deal: the dress + head cover + gloves for as little as 50 EGP (less than 6 EUR or 8 USD according to the current exchange rates).
We went home, and I got ready. I wore my long sleeved shirt and jeans, normally, and boots. Then, I put a black scarf on my head. And above all this, I finally wore the Niqab.
The first things I noticed were that my eyelashes kept getting stuck in the little net covering them, and that I couldn’t look up, down or to the sides as my field of view was very restricted.
I have to say I was very nervous, for multiple reasons:
- Not being used to wear a Niqab, I didn’t want to look unnatural while walking in the streets.
- It was just after the Revolution (2011) and there were many conspiracy theories about foreigners being spies (there still are), together with actual ads on TV warning Egyptians to watch out from foreigners behaving in a suspicious way! I didn’t want to look foreigner at all, and be in trouble.
- I don’t know if you noticed, but I have green eyes, and even if some Egyptian women have green eyes too, I was paranoid that this would make it obvious that I was a foreigner.
- I didn’t speak Arabic back then. Not that I speak much Arabic now, but I know how to sound Egyptian if I want.
- I didn’t think about the fact that even foreigners can be Muslims! So why worrying? I could always tell I was a convert. But I didn’t think of this and anyway a convert would at least speak some of the language because of the Koran, I guess.
- It was extremely hot, I guess around 30°C or more (Egyptian late April).
- My friend wanted to take me to a restaurant and make me eat (!!!) and I was begging him not to, and he had a lot of fun teasing me with that!
Now I know being worried was useless.
We went out. I used to live in Mounira, an area just beside Downtown Cairo. My friend went out first, and I followed a minute later. I didn’t want the janitor to guess it was me underneath the Niqab. And that was the first time I realized it’s kinda cool to be anonymous! Once you are on the street, nobody knows who you are. You can go anywhere and maybe even see people you know, but they won’t know it’s you unless you go and tell them! This was the cool part.
First stop – Downtown
Muhammad drove me to Downtown Cairo. We walked down Talaat Harb Street, and stopped by a juice stand, where he ordered an orange juice for me.
Another thing that made things easier was that me and him obviously looked like husband and wife (he even grew a beard…) and people wouldn’t talk to me directly, but rather ask him what I wanted to order and so on. I wouldn’t like this in “real life”, but that day it was OK for me, so I didn’t have to speak and reveal my nationality.
I had my juice. I had to ask for a straw, otherwise I wouldn’t know how to drink from behind a Niqab! It was not too hard. But I can imagine it’s very easy to get dirty especially when eating! Of course experienced niqabis will be better than me at this.
Another thing I remember about walking in Downtown is that finally nobody was looking at me. I am used to people (guys) staring, commenting, harassing. But that day, I was invisible. Enjoyable, I have to say. But just because it was an experiment – I wouldn’t want to feel invisible every day of my life.
The only people looking at me, as in “poor girl”, were the foreigners. They were all staring.
Passing by a bank, I found myself reflected in a mirror. I looked at myself while walking by. I couldn’t tell it was me, and I have to say it’s a weird feeling.
Second stop – El Haram
El Haram is a highly populated area of Giza, on the west side of the Nile. We went there and decided to ride a tuk-tuk (rickshaw).
When wearing a Niqab, one has to pay attention to many things. Back then I used to smoke and of course I couldn’t do that. But even in the smallest gestures, it’s important to act the right way. On the way to El Haram, me and Muhammad got stuck in traffic, and I was feeling very hot. Instinctively, I pulled back the sleeves of my Niqab revealing my arms. Muhammad looked at me in horror, as in “what the hell are you doing?” and I realized my mistake. Put the sleeves back down, and looked around me. Someone in the car next to us noticed what happened, but oh well. I laughed. But they couldn’t tell anyway, since my face was covered!
Once in El Haram, Muhammad stopped a tuk tuk and told him where we wanted to go. We tried to film this part, but later found out the camera didn’t record it. It was fun, even if a bit scary: the road was uneven and the driver drove like crazy.
And remember in all this I had to be silent!
We got off the tuk tuk and by then I couldn’t stand the heat anymore. I had trouble breathing and needed some fresh air. I got on the car, Muhammad drove to a side street, we checked nobody was around, and with a quick move I took off my Niqab.
What an experience!
Would I do it again? Yes! I will do this again when I go back to Egypt. I was too nervous back then, and I know I can do much better, and I will also find a way to film or take photos during the experiment. This time, all we came up with are some short videos of us in the car, while driving from a location to the next.
Ladies and gentlemen, here is the controversial “One day in a Niqab” video that I posted on Youtube two years ago, and still gets a daily dose of hate! But I hope after reading this post, you will understand it better.
In the video, I try to eat, show the process of getting ready, and talk with my friend about how I feel during the experiment.
What do I think of Niqabs?
I think I need to add some personal considerations about the whole Niqab thing.
First of all I am not against it, but I know by now many people who read the first 2 lines and skipped the rest will already have left hate comments saying I am an ignorant for being against it…
But for you that are still reading, thanks for reaching this last paragraph, and here are my thoughts.
- I’m not against the Niqab per se – everyone is free to wear whatever they like!
- In Egypt, wearing a Niqab is not obligatory (we’re not talking about Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan!) – just so that you know.
- Of course I am against it in case a woman is forced to wear one. I don’t know any woman who is actually forced to do so, so I can’t tell this is always the case, but if they exist, then I am sorry for them. Because living with a Niqab is not easy at all.
- I am sure that if a woman wishes to wear a Niqab thinking this will bring her closer to Allah, then the strong motivation will make it easier. Bearing the heat, the social consequences, etc will be acceptable to her.
- I don’t enjoy interacting with women who wear a Niqab. Unless we are in a silent environment where I can clearly hear their voices, it’s very hard to know if they’re talking to you, what’s their tone, if they’re serious or not, and so on. Very hard!
Also because if you’re in Cairo, you will rarely find a silent place… That said, I wouldn’t mind getting to know more of these women. It’s just hard to interact in public.
I guess this is it! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts. I am sure all of the above is debatable, so please leave me a comment with your opinion, I will be happy to read.