What to wear in Muslim countries: 5 tips to dress for conservative cultures – through Islamic Egypt
(At the Pyramids of Giza – how should you dress?)
I had a long debate with a Slovakian friend once. It was a heated discussion on whether or not you need to conform to the attire of the country you are in. My point was that if you are visiting someone’s country, you should respect the norms and culture of that country. His point was that if you are truly welcoming me into your country then wouldn’t you want me to be comfortable as well? Needless to say, we never did come to any conclusion on this. But for now, let’s go down my line of thinking.
(What is an Egyptian post without camels? coz camels are cool with the desert heat)
When Peggy and I decided to travel to Egypt together, we had the advantage of both having grown up in a Muslim country. Even though my country is quite moderate and liberal on some aspects, there is always an implicit social understanding on what lines do not get crossed (i.e. why the hell would you want to walk around in a bikini?). So for Egypt, we turned the conservative dressing notch up a level.
(Imagine having to wear a uniform all day in the heat!)
It is generally considered respectful to cover yourself from your wrist to your neck and from your neck to beyond your knees (for women). For men, it is generally acceptable to have your torso covered, and up to your knees. Super tight fitting, body skimming outfits are pretty much a no-no. Given that you are heading through the desert heat though, I understand the mumblings of its too darn hot out there, or why should we have to cover up all the way. I agree, and with all the advances in fashion, perhaps some kind of compromise is possible.
(Wearing double skirts and twirling around, not recommended for the faint hearted)
Why is it important to dress in deference to the locals? The thing is, as a tourist, especially in a heavily touristic place like Egypt, you already stand out. When you walk through the markets, they have already identified you and tend to come straight at you offering their wares and discounts. Add to that the fact that you will have men steadily staring at you, and sometimes making catcalls and wolf whistles. Is this really how you see yourself spending your vacation?
(It was lightweight, chiffon tops that covered my shoulders and long skirts and pants that covered my knees all the way through Egypt. L-R, Pyramids of Giza, marketplace of Aswan, Abu Simbel)
Peggy and I travelled in a group filled with girls who had packed nothing but shorts and tank tops. Again, I understand how compelling it is to do that in the heat, but trust me, when we went through the markets, the locals flocked straight at them, in large groups, coming close, whilst Peggy and I strolled in the back, completely forgotten. So the big question you need to keep top of mind pretty much is “how much do I want to be bothered?”
If by now you see yourself nodding a little with me, but still adversely against the idea of covering it all up. I do have some recommendations to ‘cheat’ the system.
1) You can wear a tank top, but why not layer it with a light chiffon top? That way you still minimize the heat whilst covering up enough to reduce attention. Note: see through top with bra top is not what I’m recommending
(Bring a scarf! And not worry about covering yourself up when entering a mosque)
2) Bring a lightweight scarf with you. If you still want to wear a tank top, why not drape a lightweight scarf over your shoulders when you walk in public. Then when you are at the main tourist sites (and there are a gazillion of you), you wouldn’t feel so out of place if you tucked the scarf away. Tip: Having a scarf is also wonderful for when you want to enter mosques
3) Gypsy like long flowing skirts are the best. They’re nice and loose enough to be breezy, light enough to make it easy to travel, but still covering the important parts
4) Showing hair for women is fine. There is a mix of ladies here who cover or do not cover their hair. So far, I never felt that this was expected of me. With the exception of the mosque of course, but come on, if you’re going into someone’s place of worship, you really should follow their rules
5) Lastly, just because the women in Egypt cover up from top to bottom, do not go there with the expectations that t hey’re going to look like sacks. Egyptian ladies have taken fashion and style in stride. So if you think you can show up not bringing you’re A-game in the dressing department, you may still feel that you’re sticking out.
Hopefully this helps! But just because you think there are some customs imposed, please don’t close your mind to the thoughts of travelling here. Egypt is beautiful and the history will blow your mind. So travel, visit it but keep an open mind, and your bellies covered.