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Abeja Dispatch

Who's behind that veil?
November 17, 1999

When you think about Arab women, what images come to mind? Do you know any Arabs?

For the rest of our time in Egypt, we're going to devote part of the web site to looking at the different ways we get our perceptions of people, particularly Arab women. For many "westerners," the images that spring to mind may be a Saudi Arabian women veiled from head to toe, a princess like Aladdin's Jasmine, or maybe a sultry belly dancer.

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Nivine and Sarah

My new friend Nivine, a 19-year-old AUC student who lived in America for several years as a child told me: "When I was in the 5th grade in Los Angeles, I remember our World Civilizations book had a section on Arabs. It showed this old picture of Bedouins and camels, straight out of some anthropology text. And everyone in the class knew that I was an Arab, and they just kept looking at me, wondering." As Nivine told me her story, she imitated her classmates' confused sideways glances.

Where do your images come from? How does the media represent Arab women? Can you name some examples? How do those representations shape your reality?

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There is no way that I could write one dispatch-or even one thousand dispatches-to tell you what "Arab women" are really like. For one thing, the "Arab World" is huge and very diverse. It includes the states in the Persian Gulf for example, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Bahrain. These countries tend to be more conservative and less "westernized." It includes the "Magreb," or Northern African states like Morocco, Libya, and Egypt, which have influences from the native Berber populations as well as the colonial powers of England and France. There is also the area called the "Levant," which includes Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria-each with different cultural traditions and ways of looking at the world.

Vocabulary box:

conservative- traditional in style or manner; cautiously moderate
Gulf States- indicates certain areas within the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia,Kuwait, Iraq and Bahrain; tend to be more conservative and less "westernized"
Levant- area in the Middle East which includes Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria, each with different cultural traditions and ways of looking at the world.
Magreb- literally, the furthest land of the setting sun, used to refer to the coutries of Northern Africa.
sultry- steamy, sexy

But even if I only want to tell you about Egyptian women, I can't just tell you what they're like. I can't just say, "all Egyptian women eat fuul (beans), or wear the hijab (Islamic headscarf)" or anything like that.

Can you think of something that you could say about the dress or behavior of all the girls in your class that would be true? How on earth could I even pretend to speak for all the women of the entire country of Egypt!

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I know that sounds funny, but it's a trap that people who travel often fall into...and, well, people who don't travel do it, too. When we don't understand a culture, we tend to generalize, and to make assumptions that take away the individuality of the people we see. Since we don't actually know them as individuals, we think of them as a group. It's not intentional, of course, but we all do it.

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For example, when I first got to Cairo, I was amazed at how many women cover their heads with a scarf. To me, that was something new, that I didn't really understand. Since I don't even speak Arabic, it was hard for me to see these women as individuals, or to understand why they would wear such a thing. Isn't it hot? Are they all having bad hair days? Are they ashamed of their beauty? Do their husbands or fathers make them do that?

We're writing a lot about the Egyptians that we meet. But we're not stopping there! We're so nice here at the Odyssey World Trek, that we're going to let you in on the fun! That's right, we're going to let you meet Real Live Egyptian Students, both boys and girls, on a live internet "chat"!

Through my new friendships, I'm getting to know women in hijabs personally, and I'm finding that they are very much like me! I've learned that the percentage of women who wear the hijab has increased a lot in the last 10 years, and the resurgence started on university campuses. For many women, it is a source of pride and a statement that they are respectable women. Instead of being a tool of oppression, many women think that wearing the hijab liberates them from the unwelcome gaze of men, and is a reminder that they should be treated with respect.

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Even though I can't tell you anything that IS true for every Egyptian woman, I can introduce you to some of the women I'm meeting here, and let them speak for themselves. People like Mona and Wafaa, (see Monica's article) and Nivine are not only are interesting people, but they have helped me recognize some of the stereotypes that I had in my mind, and didn't even know it! In that way, I can at least show you some things that ARE NOT true for EVERY Egyptian woman.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Abeja - Insha'allah: An Egyptian Love Story?
Jasmine - 50 Centuries of Turbulent History Revealed
Kavitha - What Goes Around Comes Around: those Whirling, Praying Dervishes!
Monica - Dr. ZeinabSafar and Egypt's Working Women

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