Thoughts from an Australian Muslim convert living in Egypt

Sue Ryan

I am an Australian-born writer of Anglo-Celtic descent, living in Egypt. With pale skin, blue eyes and dark blonde hair, I don’t fit the generalisation many people hold of “what a Muslim looks like”. My parents were of different religions; Mum Christian and Dad Jewish, with Dad converting to Christianity some time after their marriage. Dad, being a redhead with an Irish-Catholic family name, did not fit the generalization of “what a Jew looks like”, so I learnt from his stories about the prejudices that you can observe and experience when you are not one of the majority. I was blessed to grow up knowing about two religions and feel this made me more questioning of belief systems. My spiritual search began at 13 when I decided I could not embrace Christianity. From 1993 I visited Egypt every few years. Even before then I was interested in Sufi teachings, my introduction to Islam. I became Muslim last year.

In 2010 I decided to live in Egypt, in Siwa Oasis. I was already practicing modest dressing on previous visits so that I did not stand out so much as a foreigner or attract inappropriate attention; I also covered my hair when visiting mosques or in conservative areas of Cairo. In Siwa, when women leave their homes or there are male guests who are not family, they are completely covered including their faces. At home they dress as many other Egyptian women, in long dresses with long sleeves. They wear long pants under their dresses so legs are covered when they sit on the floor (most living including meals is on floor mats and cushions, though many homes have chairs and lounges) and for outdoor activities when lifting dresses may be necessary.

Growing up in Australia, when it is hot you take clothes off. On summer nights when it was too hot to stay indoors, our family often walked around the neighborhood, looking at Christmas trees lit up in people’s windows, my sister and I wearing brief baby-doll PJs. During the day, playing under a sprinkler on the front lawn in a bikini would not have raised the eyebrows of people passing by. Later, I often wore short skirts or tank tops to work. But in a majority Muslim country, you cover up even in 40+ degrees.

Even in Siwa, where tourists are told the people are conservative, some do not respect local tradition and will swim in bikinis and wander the streets with exposed arms and legs. But I wanted to be accepted by the community. Although prepared by past visits I still had much to learn, for example the need to wear pants under a skirt so I did not have to expose my legs clambering into a donkey cart, which is common transport, and that when you wash you don’t hang your underwear outside to dry, or at least you hide it between two lines of other clothing. I could wear whatever I wanted in the house, but must always have quick cover ready for visitors and they often turn up unannounced. I was fortunate that my male neighbor practiced Muslim modesty by pointedly NOT looking at me if he walked into the house and I had no time to cover my arms. His young daughters and their friends were curious about what I wore in the house, and always commented positively when they saw me more modestly dressed; 15 year old Ansaf gave me first lessons in wearing a headscarf, which she is already expert at styling.

My partner is Muslim and has never asked me to wear a headscarf. From cosmopolitan Alexandria, like many urban Egyptians he dresses Western style and is very fashion conscious. He can show more skin than a woman can – bare arms, and bare lower legs and torso at the beach; but while he loves to show off his physique, he still follows modesty rules by wearing longer board-shorts.

I was familiar with covering from my exploration of cultures and religions and as a student of dress history; I was a fashion journalist for 10 years and taught fashion at RMIT University. I knew many religions had levels of cover or modest dress which include covering the hair. If a tourist asked me why they should cover their hair when going into a mosque, I answered “well you can’t enter the church in the Vatican with bare shoulders or in shorts” and that some Christian and Jewish women also cover their hair, especially in places of worship.

Outside of Siwa, Egyptian Muslims have diverse interpretations of what is appropriate dress and adequate cover, just as Muslims do in Australia. Many of the women wear headscarves with clothing that is skin-tight and more revealing than most of the clothes I wore in Australia. I was a size 16 for many years and am also a naturally sweaty person, so loose layers are more comfortable for me. I discussed what is “appropriate” with other women, including some who like me were not born Muslim and did not grow up in Muslim majority societies, and the best advice I got was from Eisha Saleh of Australian fashion designers baraka. She suggested I wear what I feel comfortable with before God.

No matter what I wear, some people here will think it is too much and some not enough. I now live in Sinai where the Bedouin women are covered in a different way but almost as completely as the Siwan women. I dress mostly neck to ankle and long sleeves, but I still get hissed at or looked askance at by a few women because I don’t cover my hair. The men where I work (I am the only woman) are Coptic Christian and I would not feel comfortable wearing headscarves here, and may be harassed and lose my work. Eisha’s idea of wearing what you are comfortable in before God has an amusing twist in my house, because it is owned by my boss and full of Coptic images including one of Jesus which looks into the bathroom. I have no problem with these images because Islam recognizes Jesus, Moses and prophets of the other Abrahamic faiths, but it did make me wonder if Jesus or Allah is really that bothered about what I choose to wear. There are bigger issues.

In the towns I wear long dresses and covered arms, or skirts or pants with kurta style shirts. My neck is not always covered as I wear clothes bought in Australia, but more often now I wear scarves to cover the neck. It is easy to extend a scarf over my head. When I wear a headscarf, including a recent visit to Siwa, people are curious and ask if I am Muslim and are overjoyed when I say yes. This makes it clear that the rest of my modest dress does not give the same indication. That is because many Coptic Christian women here also dress modestly, and many Muslims wear much more revealing clothing, so only the headscarf is truly definitive. In the cities where people are highly fashion conscious I may wear tighter clothes, jeans, and in winter calf length skirts with boots, so I dress exactly as I did living in Melbourne. Eventually I may transition to full head cover; I feel drawn to it from respect for my beliefs, but it takes time to change when you have 50 years of not covering.

It has been interesting observing my partner’s attitude to modest dress. He is a devout Muslim in many ways but has worked in the tourist resort of Sharm el Sheikh for 8 years and appreciates bikinis and revealing clothing. This, and the more physical attractions and possibilities of Sharm than “just looking”, has caused great confusion in his life. Thanks to the media and internet the same confusions about appropriate dress are felt by many men and women here. The English language magazines, even those run and written by Muslims, feature international fashions and bare skin, and some Egyptians will dress this way in nightclubs and even at weddings. You can easily buy a miniskirt and a tank top in Cairo, and these are not just stocked for foreigners and non-Muslims. Anything goes at home if it does not offend your partner, and from the many stores of risqué lingerie here, “less is more” is obviously embraced. I am delighted to see women head-to-toe in black, only eyes revealed, standing at the windows of these stores full of lurid lacy confections and deciding what to buy.

I have also become fascinated by Egyptian wedding dress. Many brides who would not otherwise show skin or hair, do so on their wedding day; I was astounded to see a friend’s hair and arms (under sheer lace) for the first and maybe only time, for her wedding. Other brides choose a dress that is strapless, but layer a high-necked, long sleeved body-shirt under it and still cover their hair. This look took me by surprise initially, but I have grown to also like it.

An additional confusion is watching on TV films and music videos from the 1960s where the Egyptian women are bare-armed and in fitted, short skirts, and there is much kissing and embracing by couples. They look just like their Australian counterparts of the era did, and I often wonder how women and men here mentally negotiate that past with their more conservative present.

If I swim alone or with my partner I wear a one piece, as I have for years, but if there are other people I cover in leggings and a kurta. Eventually I may buy a purpose designed swimming costume which covers but does not have the cling and riding-up problems of the shirt.

I am constantly negotiating between my long Australian experience of fashion and how to dress in that hot country, and my wish to dress modestly now. In my aim of consuming less I am “making do” with clothes I brought from Australia, so I sometimes feel dowdy in comparison to beautifully dressed women here, and my headscarf technique needs practice. But I remind myself they have had all their lives to get it right, and as with learning language here I am like a two year old again. I am drawn to abayas, which can look especially beautiful, and they may become “my style” when I eventually need to replace clothes and as I move into my 60s; they also simplify the dilemmas of coordinating separates. I have a good collection of scarves, but the women here are so meticulous in their coordination of scarf and clothes that I need to add some more colours and get more caps and bands (worn under a scarf instead of layering two scarves) to keep my fringe hidden.

I admire the style of so many women here, but I admire even more their commitment in the heat and constant sand dust to dressing modestly and with pride. When I have a moment of personal discomfort with this way, I look around at the many wonderful examples of women and say to myself, “get over it, you know why this is important to you, to your beliefs. It is far from the most challenging thing in your life; like anything, it is only as difficult as you make it.”

Sue has contributed some photos to our Sartorial Stories; they can be viewed here.

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