Outlines Review: Women in Black Episode 3

This week’s episode is in Cairo. Presenter Armani Zain is quick to paint it as a party town from her experiences there as a student.

Armani gives a good insight into dress in Cairo, explaining that while wearing the hijab is becoming increasingly common, many women do not wear the hijab. Those that do wear it, often experiment with many different styles and colours, so there aren’t that many ‘women in black’.

Further on the hijab tip, we meet a female factory owner who makes hijabs. She happily explains that as a Muslim women she feels her religion doesn’t just permit her work, it helps her to work and make her own money, by viewing it as a form of worship.

Zain mentions that the veil has become popular in Egypt, not just as a religious act, but as a political statement against the avowedly secular government (Hmm). Egypt’s increasing religiosity is again mentioned in regards to it’s film industry. Egypt’s film were once as raunchy as their western counterparts, but Zain laments that increased censorship has made them ‘bland’. Any viewers vaguely paying attention at this point may have noticed a not very well hidden agenda begin to emerge. More about this later.

Zain says that she herself would have liked to have become an actress, but that her culture and family would not allow. She speaks to two different women outside of a cinema. The first states that there should be more hijab wearing women in Egyptian films, as many Egyptian women wear the hijab. The other women disagrees, stating she doesn’t like the hijab and most people who wear it are forced to do so by male relatives. This is a rarely expressed view, narrates Zain.

Now for the issue of plastic surgery, with the frankly ludicrous claim that up to 20% of Cairenes have had some form of cosmetic surgery. Not even any U.S city, would such a figure be accurate. The plastic surgeon interviewed is female. She makes the rather dubious statement that cosmetic surgery is a gift from God and to not use this gift would be sinful.

More statistics with the statement that most married Egyptian women have had FGM. Zain does point out that there have been fatwas and campaigns against this practice.

Next, we saw Zain watching Heba Kotb’s show, in which the sexologist dispenses Islamically orientated advice in a frank manner. Zain is displeased when Kotb advises against masturbation, describing this as “reactionary”, not mentioning that masturbation is indeed considered to be widely disliked under Islamic rulings (opinions vary considering the circumstances).

Meeting with Kotb however, Zain describes her as the first person to realise that there are references sexual etiquette in the Qur’an and Sunnah. This isn’t actually true, at all. Zain  asks if Kotb feels such blunt discussion of  sexual matters in compatible with Islam? Kotb explains that to be sexually considerate is in the Qur’an and Sunnah that she hopes to strengthen marriages through her advice.

Next Cairo’s party scene complete with alcohol is shown as the norm for many Egyptian women and Khaleji’s who want to ‘let their hair down’. This is not Islamic behaviour and while I know there are women who are Muslim that do this, a lot of us don’t and would consider it sinful and resent the idea that we’re all longing to ‘party western style’.

As seems to be obligatory for this series, there is some hair removal. A minor fuss occurs as the woman are unhappy to show their faces due to Zain showing her legs on film. Zain seems genuinely astounded that the women would react like this, stating that it’s an example of the tightrope Muslim women walk. Again I have problems with this idea that Muslim women are perpetually conflicted souls, especially in this programme which has just interviewed three women who feel completely at ease with their lives and their religion.

An Egyptian wedding is shown, which while typical, is actually about as Islamic as a pork chop (alcohol, belly dancing, lavish expenditure ).

We are told that Egyptian women are not as free as their western counterparts (remember that hidden agenda I mentioned before) and that this desire for freedom coupled with a rise in religious observance not only creates hypocrisy but a future clash of ideals.

Yes, clash, that quintessential verb that must be used whenever Islam and Muslims are discussed in a modern context.

Let’s look at things from a different perspective. People have been being Muslim for quite some time now, over 1400 years. They have neither faded into obsolescence, nor remained frozen in time. Empires have risen and fallen, wars have been fought, natural disasters endured and Muslims have remained.

As for Egypt, why is assumed that the modernity they seek is the right to ape western social habits? What was glossed over by the programme and it’s relentless focus on the upper class, is that a lot of Egyptians live in poverty. Illiteracy is high, poor housing widespread and the government manages to be both corrupt and draconian. Rising food prices have even lead to national strikes.

By repeating the lie that “They just hate/envy our freedom”, this programme isn’t unveiling anything. Instead it is just reinforcing familiar prejudices. 


18 Responses

  1. Again you are looking at the programme from a religious point of view, your focus is on what is “Islamic”, it was balanced in my view, it showed how upper classes in Egypy celebrate weddings (common) and how less fortunate people do it.

    Are Egpytian women as free as their western counterparts? Ofcourse not if freedom means access to education, health, employment, inheritance, choice in marriage etc. However the programme is light hearted to examine those issues.

  2. Of course I’m looking at the programme from a religious point of view, it is purporting to be about Muslim women after all. If it’s remit was the lives of upper class Arab women, I would not be complaining. I see this programme as a wasted opportunity, as people are very curious about Muslims actually believe and do, they would not be any the wiser after watching this programme.

    Finally, most Egyptians do not have access to education, healthcare, cannot afford to get married and are not likely to receive any inheritance and that cannot be blamed on Islam.

  3. The BBC is billing this program as being about Muslim Women, which does imply being well–religious. From their own advertising–
    “Amani Zain travels from London to Yemen to see life behind the veil inside the Muslim women’s quarters of her family home…Amani Zain guides us around the number one holiday destination for Muslim people…Amani Zain explores life behind the veil, joining hundreds of Muslim women who flock to the shopping capital of the Gulf – Dubai.”
    If the word “Muslim” were replaced by Arab/Egyptian/Yemeni/etc–I wouldn’t blink twice. But marketing this as an exploration of The Muslim Woman’s World is much more profitable than just a billing it as yet another tour of the Arab world. Finally, everyone gets to see under the veil!
    There is no way someone would do something similar running through say Canada, North America and England using Caucasian women and billing it as an expose on Christian Women–no way!
    Why did inheritance come into this conversation? In the US we see bumper stickers and whatnot that say things like “I blew my kid’s inheritance in Vegas”–inheritance is purely whim based here–not religiously encouraged and surely many people don’t see much or any–unless of course the parents had life insurance which is completely haram.
    Love and Peace,

  4. After having watched the 2 previous episodes, you knew this was not going to be an examination of “Women in Islam” but a short insight into Egyptian “Muslim Women”. Like you they believe in the 5 pillars of Islam, just because they are described as muslims doesnt mean the programme should concentrate on their religiosity.

  5. Salaam Alaikum,

    Kaliimaat – If you read my review you would see that I had far greater concerns about this particular episode then the emphasis on shopping.

  6. You are actually parroting the western prejudice in tyour review.

    more 50% of Egypians are middle class. and those featured in the film didn’t even represent the upper portion of the Middle class.

    I wonder why do many westeners get very jealous when they see properous modern Middle -class Arabs??????

    It doesn’t fit into the sultan-beggar stereotype!? Huh?

  7. Salaam Alaikum,

    Ali – I have been to Egypt. To put it bluntly, there is a middle class, there is an upper class, there is a class that is almost unimaginably wealthy and then there is the majority of the population which is incredibly poor.

    In my review ( which people don’t seem to be actually reading, they’re just complaining about what they think I wrote instead), I never said that there were no rich people, I just said that people’s main concerns were not films and clothing.

  8. I want to call BS on the statement that most married Egyptian women have had FGM, thats just completely laughable. Its a small percentage of Egyptians who have it as its not really a part of their culture. If you’re discussing Somalis or Sudanese then you could reasonably claim that, but not in Egypt.

    I have not seen the programme, but the points you brought up seem to be on spot for me. I’d have issue with everything you brought up.

    Ali- I’m not sure what part of Egypt you’ve been in, or by what standards you judge “Middle class” but it could be said that 50% of Egyptians are toeing the poverty line. Does that make them “Middle class” when another 25% are so far below the poverty line that their actual wages are so low as to be considered negligable?

    If so, then sure, 50% of Egyptians are “Middle Class.”

  9. Salaam Alaikum,
    I did actually check the figures concerning FGM (my immediate reaction was similar to yours). According to this study it is pretty widespread, especially in rural areas:
    Alhamdulilah, the figures are falling as awareness campaigns begin to take effect.

  10. Salaam,

    I reviewed this episode over at my blog, and I quite liked it. I hated the one about Dubai though, and I’d already said that I didn’t like how the show is supposed to be about ‘Muslim’ women, when in reality it’s actually only Arab culture. But you’re right – they made it that much more exciting simply by inserting the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘veil’ *yawn* anyway feel free to read my reviews, although I admit I did concentrate on the more superficial side of things, considering the nature of the blog 🙂

  11. Walikum Salaam Hayah – I really like your site, btw Masha Allah.

    I agree she nailed Egyptian Hijabi fashion pretty well. I love the colours and creativity. I have also been in that shop she was in, the selection was amazing, but for the best deals you have to go to the markets.

  12. “I want to call BS on the statement that most married Egyptian women have had FGM, thats just completely laughable. Its a small percentage of Egyptians who have it as its not really a part of their culture”

    Actually, molly you’re wrong on this issue including the part about it not being part of the culture. And the stats all disagree with you. Most that I’ve read put the figure around 90-95%. Additionally, all the women in my family (we’re egyptian) who are around my mother’s age (late 40s early 50s) have all been circumcised or whatever you like to call it. And my family members are not peasants from little villages. They are well to do and educated. And ditto to what safiya said about the numbers falling due to awareness and what not. In my family it is the men (strangely enough) who actually refused to allow the practice to continue in my family.

    Anyways, I definitely prefer egyptian fashion over khaleeji fashion. Color is always prettier and less depressing than head to toe black 🙂 The only thing I’ve always found to be kind of strange about it is the extreme tightness of a lot of the outfits, which seems to defeat the point of covering the hair but at least they look good 🙂

    And Good post btw. I didn’t see the show cuz i’m not in the UK. You put a much different perspective on it from other blogs I’ve read that covered the series.

  13. Hey, teensy bit off subject, have you read Willow Wilson’s “Cairo” yet? It’s pretty much a must read as far as I’m concerned.

    By the way, good lookin out, I appreciate it.

  14. Moly and Safy,

    With all due respect Safiyah, visting Egypt doesn’t qulaify you in any way whatsoever to come up wih assesssments regarding the social structure in Egypt.

    One reason is that Egyptian and Arabic culture in general is structurally different from western one. Hence it would take you at least 8 or 9 years of living Egypt to understand the naunces of its class structure.

    Regarding Molly. Your information is incorrect:

    Middle class is defined by many parameters- and not just income; it includes relations of production, mentality, expectations, education, value system, housing style …..etc

    In this regard, we could say that 60% of Egyptians can by categoriesed into the very broad category of Middle class. But always note that your measurments must be placed in the right context which must be an Arabic one.

    However if we use income parameters. Not less than 40% of Egyptians are mIddle class with 10% living in more or less western European living standards.

    The complexity of the social structiure in Egypt goes back to the age of Arabic floursihing in medieaval times where Cairo, Damascus, Spain and Baghdad witnessed a very strong Bourgeoil class. It continued till the 19th century when Egypt’s ambitious leaps into modernity further expended and reconceptualised the the Middle class construct in Egypt.

    Finally relativley speaking, the class system though very retrograde when compared to European one, we are, still, faring much better than Pakistan and Moroco and even rich oil tanks like Iran and Saudi Arabia

  15. Salaam Alaikum,

    Anon – Thanks for your comments. It’s interesting that it was the men who stopped it happening in your family.

    Ali – I’m not sure that anything in my comment was actually incorrect, but you see it as a slur against Misr Umm Al Dunya anyway.

    Dave – I’ve had it for a while and I keep meaning to just sit down and read it, ideally in one go. It’s odd, but when I borrow a book, I race through it, but if I buy it, then it sits on my shelf for ages.

  16. Safiya,

    Having been to Egypt I will agree with you. It would seem that Ali is using different/non Western concepts of what “Middle Class” really is.

    The FACT is that Egypt the GDP in Egypt is $4,836 dollars a year, which makes is 110th on the international scale, hence it is one of the pooer nations in the world.

    The Egyptian Middle Class is larger than any other country in the Arabic speaking world, but that is not saying much. The majority of Egypt is poor and relies on such government food hand outs to the extent that large portion of the country was wracked with violence because of bread shortage. This is not the reaction of a country with a majority of it’s people in the Middle Class.

    Large sections of Egypt are desperately poor. Of course there is the pro-Western elite, but most of the country is poor or urban lower mIddle Class, that would be considered poor by anyone outside of an Egyptian. The “infitah” did not do all it was promised.

    There is a reason why meals such as foul and kushari are so popular in Egypt. It is because the vast majority of Egyptians cannot afford meat or other food items, except on special occassions. Hence, they eat a lot of beans and rice.

    Ali must be joking when he talks about Egyptians doing better than Saudis. There is a reason why there are so many Egyptians working for next to nothing in Saudi.

    Ali sounds like a propaganda film. The 10% he talks about are the wealthy, pro government elite who often gain their fortune through reshwa and corruption, their jobs and businesses through wasta. In this they are no different than any other Arab nation.

    The 40% Middle Class he talks about is mostly “Middle Class” in name only, from a Western sense, and would be considered poor in any Western nation.

    The vast majority of Egypt lays in a poverty that is almost impossible for most Westerns to even comprehend!

    Maybe it makes Ali feel better to ignore reality. Then again, Arabic culture is known for “jamile kadaba”. I dont play that game of polite lies, I tell it how it is.

  17. Salaam Alaikum,

    Abu Sinan – Thank you for your lengthy and accurate comment.

    I loved Egypt when I visited but I was astounded the disparity in standards of living.

    The last time I went (2005), there were adverts everywhere for the opening of a branch of Virgin Megastore in City Stars. The people I was staying with would be considered middle class, Masters graduates on a salary of 7000L.E a month. I went to the Virgin Megastore, to see what the prices were like and they were identical (if not slightly more expensive) to the U.K. An ipod was 3000, which was nearly half of my friend’s monthly salary. Of course, the really rich work for multi nationals and are paid in US dollars, and they are the people who can afford to buy such items.

    Meanwhile, by the Pyramids, you have people without electricity and carrying water in jugs on their heads.

    When I was at the airport, I had some left over L.E so I dumped it in the charity bin. I looked up and saw one of the airport cleaners staring at me in horror and I realised that what was such a little amount to me, was worth far more to him.

    However, an interesting point (and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong folks), is that a city like Rio which has the same inequalities is riven with crime, whereas Cairo feels safer to walk around in then London.

  18. Safiya,

    Your post shows that what Egyptians consider “Middle Class” do not fit the definition to what we consider middle class here. Almost half a monthly salary of a person with a Master’s Degree for an iPOD?

    That is certainly not Middle Class from a Western standpoint. My new iPOD cost a fraction of my two week paycheck. That, I dont even have my masters. It seems to me that the Egyptian definition of Middle Class is someone who doesnt struggle from paycheck to paycheck to put food on the table.

    I understand what you are saying about Rio and Cairo, but I would have to qualify it with pointing out that it is really serious crimes that are much lower in Cairo. Cairo is well known for petty criminals and pick pockets. In Rio you are fair more likely to be killed for your money rather than just have it taken.

    London? Honestly I have spent a lot of time in London, and not always the best places mind you, and have never had an issue.

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