Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyage banner



By Melody Heath

            While in Alexandria, like most first-time visitors to Egypt, I felt a need to visit all the main tourist attractions.  Settling in the ultra-modern Alexandria Library, I pulled a large pile of books in front of me to go through.  Three months away from a sufficient library to read and relax in, I felt starved for the stacks of books and isles of shelves. 

            Every time I looked up from my book and saw a veiled woman wearing the full veil, I was shocked.  Perhaps it is because in the library I could forget that I was in Egypt.  Or the shock could have stemmed from the fact that I had never seen anyone in the full veil in person before. 

            Through my innocence I couldn’t help the mystery I felt toward these women.  The only part of their bodies left uncovered was their eyes.  I wondered is that comfortable?  Can they look from side to side, or do they have to turn their whole head to see to their left or right?  Still filled with questions about this ancient uniform donned by Muslim women, I left the main library in search of the ladies’ room. 

            As per usual, there was a line stretching outside the woman’s bathroom.  After some minutes, when I was finally standing in the doorway, located next to the sinks and mirrors, I was once again mildly surprised at what I saw.  Five teenagers about thirteen or fourteen were standing in front of the mirror obsessing about their hair.  Their veils were draped around their shoulders and the pins that held them in place were held between their lips.  One was trying to put a younger girl’s hair into a pony tail, but bumps and tangles kept frustrating the process.  I was surprised that girls so young wear the veil.  In “Remaking the Modern,” by Farha Ghannam, while explaining how she did her field work in Egypt, Ghannam mentions that an informant suggested that she wear a scarf so that people know she is a Muslim and that she is married (12).  Therefore, I assumed that most of the women I would see wearing a scarf in Egypt would be married.  Next I had time to be surprised that these girls were fretting over their hair.      

            If I could have, I would have asked them, “You care what your hair looks like?  Why?”  It seems crazy to me that people would care about certain things that aren’t even visible publicly.  If my hair was covered, I wouldn’t worry about what it looks like.  If my face was covered, I wouldn’t put make up on.  These teens don’t wear the full Burka and they may not have to wear it even after they get married.  However, I presumed that in a society that seems to encourage this traditional and religious dress, women would care less about visible aspects of beauty. 

            It could be that Egyptian society has turned hair and make up into more of a personal beauty.  Maybe requiring women to cover their hair has made it more of a symbol of beauty.  These girls know what their hair looks like under their veils and obviously that is important to them.  

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