May 25, 2013
Dispatches From Cairo: Raising Cane Against the ‘Morality Police’
Posted on Jan 17, 2012
We asked Lauren Unger-Geoffroy, an international artist who lives in Cairo, to share her perspective of life in Egypt after the revolution. In this entry, she writes about the emergence of vigilante “vice patrols” that seek to impose a dress code on women.
CAIRO—“Cover yourself, sisters!”
This gave Eman and me a bit of a shock, as we were “covered,” wearing hijab, our hair covered by draped scarves, coordinated with our culturally conforming outfits—jackets, with jeans and hip-length tunic in one case and a long skirt in the other. We were walking back from a fast-food restaurant in a Cairo suburb where Eman is living with her husband while they finish their studies in political science and business management. I had been reflecting on the masculine words for “humanity” in various languages: man, l’homme, mankind, the Egyptian expression “sons of Adam.”
The bearded, 30-ish man in the dark galabeya looked at us severely, while keeping his gaze slightly away, and repeated his admonition: “Your clothing is immodest. Go home and correct yourselves.”
We froze for a moment and I was speechless, but Eman, a vocal young revolutionary, and never one to be cowed by a man, turned and said defiantly: “Who are you? Who gave you the right to represent Islam or to judge me? You don’t know me. I am perfectly covered and I do not need to justify myself to you!”
This was too much, and Eman exploded. “And you can talk to me? This is not Sunna! That is not Muhammad PBUH’s words! This is not the wish of Allah that women do not have the right to speak! Muhammad PBUH listened to his women. Who assigned you the authority? I am a true Muslim, I fought for the rights of my people, I prayed with my brothers and sisters while tear gas was shot at us. I am trying to create a country where people can eat and have what they need to live and worship—and what are you doing? You are patrolling to tell me I am not covered enough? You think that is the most important thing? That is all that Islam is—that women must all wear a niqab? This is the most important thing for you?”
She was on a roll and people were gathering.
The man was turning red with rage and humiliation. He did not have a cane to strike us but looked as if he wished he did. I put my hand on Eman’s shoulder to signal my support but also to try to calm her. There were about 10 people gathered now, including about four women, one of whom said, “She is right.” Most of the other women mumbled in agreement. One of the older ones said to us, “Bishwish, calmly, slowly, don’t get so nervous.” Two of the others, big women, put their hands on their hips and looked daggers at the man, and one, an old woman, said to him, “Just go now, brother. No problems.”
The man turned to the others and noticed the other men had black sajdah marks on their foreheads equal to his, and they were not with him. “You shall see. You shall see,” he growled and turned and walked away angrily.
Those gathered round us started talking about the incident, agreeing that Egypt’s people had not taken their courage into their hands and sacrificed everything in order to submit to Wahhabist oppression. The women were all dressed in Islamic fashion with long jilbabs and abayas. A few women wearing niqab passed us. After a while Eman and I left amid the clasping of hands and shoulder pats and smiles and “Don’t worry,” “Take care” and “Peace.”
The man who accosted us may have been part of a new group I had heard about a few days before. According to the Tahrir News, in Benha, a small town in the Nile delta, over the New Year weekend a group of ultraconservative, bearded young men had gone around wielding canes and calling themselves the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Self-styled morality police, like those in Saudi Arabia, they threatened shop owners who sold Western or “immodest” clothing and intimidated female customers, accusing them of “indecent behavior.”
Barbers were told they could no longer shave men’s beards, and retail businesses were told there would be inspections to check for compliance. Women were ordered to cover up and obey “God’s law on earth.” Committee members closed down some shops and destroyed some clothes, and told women who were not in niqab that they would be physically punished if they did not cover completely.
Apparently some of the patrollers met with an unexpected reaction when they entered a Benha beauty salon.
When they burst into this sanctuary of women’s vanity empowerment, ordering the women out, calling their hairstyling and manicures and beauty treatments “indecent” and a “forbidden vice” and threatening to strike them with the canes if they did not stop what they were doing, the women fought back. They grabbed the canes and whipped the intruders with their own weapons and pushed them out to the street as an impressed crowd gathered and cheered.
Many Egyptians love that story. Everyone here knows people like both those self-righteous men and those tough women.
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