Hijibba-jabba (Cairo/Alexandria Day 3A)

I've been using powerpoints quite a bit. Luckily, I already try to have a few words on my slides as possible, so it's trivial for me to prepare slides for audiences that may not read English. Of course, I've had to leave out many of my more ludicrous meme-based attempts at humor, but that may be a good thing. I should try throwing in a gratuitous Pokémon just to see what happens.

Speaking of Japanese cultural exports, there's a lot of Hello Kitty here in Cairo. Not as much as in Tokyo, but more than in the US. Hello Kitty t-shirts, bags, you name it. No Hello Kitty hijabs that I found, but I did see a Mickey Mouse hijab. I'll take the liberty of anticipating the question in your mind: "what's the deal with the hijab, anyway?" OK, let me break it down a little bit for you. First, definitions. The hijab is a smallish head scarf, that's it. The abaya is a long, loose-fitting robe. The niqab is a veil that covers the face except the eyes. The burqa is like the whole schmeer all put together into a comprehensive total covering, sometimes including long black gloves.

So, I'm no Islamic scholar, but I know my Quran pretty well. You know how many different variables and interpretations of the Bible there are, encompassing everything form the Pope to Unitarians to creationists? Well, the 33 flavors of Christianity have got nothing on the versions of Islam. (Side note: this is why the teabagger hype against the south Manhattan community center and mosque area is so annoying and duplicitous. Imagine trying to stop a plain-vanilla Methodist youth center because Fred Phelps is an asshole. You wouldn't. It. Makes. No. Sense.)

Anyway, culture and religion influence each other. Duh. Some aspects of that relationship have been around so long that they become a tautology. Why do we have Sundays off? We have Sundays off because we have Sundays off. You can point to a quasi-religious reasoning behind it if you want to, and you might go to church, but neither of those things need have any bearing on your own relationship with the infinite. So there's the hijab. Derived from a hadith? Sure thing. But it's definitely more complicated that that. Women wear the hijab because they want to wear the hijab. There are a million different ways that they wrap around the head, there are as many styles as there are colors and fabrics. But girls and teenagers and women are similar everywhere. The teenage girls at the El Sawy Center wearing hijabs would almost certainly wear it as part of a perfectly coordinated outfit, with a top designed to accentuate upper body features as much as possible, and with impossibly tight jeans and enormous shoes.

One thing I've noticed in my life is this (sweeping generality to follow). Men dress how men dress because of how they think it makes them look; momen dress how women dress because of how it makes them feel, regardless of culture. So why would a woman wear a hijab? Because she wears a hijab. But, there are almost as many women in Cairo that don't. And it's as simple as that. I've heard explanations about correlations between class standing and whether a woman wears them or not, and this starts to bear itself out in interesting ways when you consider other outfits. More on this later.

Americans have this perception of Islamic culture as an incomprehensible, impenetrable monolith, when it is so much more complex and nuanced than that. Consider this: schools in Egypt ban the niqab for teachers and students. You hear about the struggles of so-called east-west culture clash, like long standing liberalized cultures are being invaded by sharia, but the fact is that there are are political and class struggles within Islamic cultures, the debates are anything but settled.

We got up early and got on the train to Alexandria. The train arrived in Alex an hour late, throwing a very tightly packed schedule into a bit of disarray. Our contacts Bridget Walker and Samia Khalil picked us up at the station and took us to our first stop: Alexandria University.