Since standards of personal modesty differ in Egypt to the West, visitors to Cairo often worry about what they should and shouldn’t wear. Whilst there are a few things to bear in mind, I think people get more worked up about this than necessary.
I’ll set out what men and women in Egypt tend to wear, along with the guidelines I believe you should follow as a visitor. (It should go without saying that all the points I make here are generalisations, and not cast in stone.)
First up, it’s worth noting that appearances are important in Egypt. If people can dress well, they will. One simple example: many people refuse to wear flip-flops (shib-shibs) because they feel they are a sign of low class. That, and the streets are dirty! (I take the view that it’s easier to wash my feet than my shoes, and I’ll do anything possible to release myself from the tyranny of socks.)
Most – though not all – Egyptian men wear trousers in public, along with a shirt or t-shirt. It’s rare to see singlets. Lots of people still wear the traditional Egyptian dress, the galabaya, though it’s more common in the countryside and further south.
As a male visitor to Cairo it’s up to you what you wear. You won’t offend anyone by wandering around in shorts and a vest top, though people will think you’ve forgotten to get dressed. But you will arguably get more respect from people if you are covering your knees and shoulders. It’s sensible to wear trousers and t-shirt if you are planning to visit non-touristy areas, and definitely if you are going to visit any religious sites. It’s not acceptable to go bare-chested anywhere, though.
As for the galabaya, that’s your call. It’s great for the climate – loose and airy – but as a foreigner you will attract a lot of attention. And please, don’t buy a tacky one from Khan al-Khalili that has pharaonic motifs all over it. They should be against the law.
Egyptian women will almost always cover their shoulders and knees, and usually wear clothing that reaches their wrists and ankles. The majority of Muslim women here wear a headscarf (the higab). Wearing a niqab (full face covering) and gloves is less common, though not unusual. Christian women don’t normally cover their hair.
As a female visitor to Cairo, the issue of what to wear is a bit trickier. Personally, I think it’s sensible to cover at least your shoulders and knees. Even better to wear tops that come down to your elbows, and bottoms that reach your ankles.
Why? A number of reasons. First, it does show respect for the local culture. I’ve read lots of heated online discussions where people have argued they have the right to wear what they want, where they want. I don’t agree. Whilst it may not be against the law (I don’t think) to walk down Oxford Street dressed only in a penis gourd, it’s not necessarily appropriate. This is an extreme analogy, but I believe the point still stands.
More importantly, dressing that little bit more conservatively should make your life a bit easier. You will still attract attention, and you may still get hassled, but it’s less likely to happen if you are dressed in a long skirt and loose blouse than if you are in hot pants and a halter top.
In touristy areas such as the Pyramids people have seen it all before anyway, and you’re not going to offend anyone. But elsewhere, rightly or wrongly, there is the chance people might take exception to your clothing. So a little more modest goes a long way.
It’s not necessary for female visitors to cover their hair. In fact, this could be counter-productive, since people will then assume you are Muslim. You will be expected to cover your hair if visiting a mosque, and most likely a church.
A useful thing to carry around with you is a scarf or shawl. That way if you need to cover your hair, or feel uncomfortable with bare shoulders, you have something to hand with which to cover up. And unlike the guys, it should be possible for you to find a half decent galabaya in Khan al-Khalili if that tickles your fancy. Even better, head to al-Muski market and do your shopping there.
For what it’s worth, I’ve lived in Egypt long enough that people wearing shorts now look funny to me. Obviously I don’t find it offensive, it just looks… odd. Same goes for seeing “scantily” clad women. Now, I’m only one sandal away from being a mung bean-eating hippy, so if it looks slightly strange to me….
I’ve blogged before about this shift in my perception. If you are interested you can read it here.
[Note: the feature image is me in a galabaya on a felucca with three friends of mine, back in my tour leading days.]
What do you think about bending your dress sense to cultural norms? Got any questions? Hit me up in the comments below.