On the Issue of Bikinis and Burkinis at Egyptian Beaches


My son asked me once why I always throw a shawl on my bare shoulders in Cairo, yet go out in shorts and wear a bikini on the beach in Sahel.

A friend once asked me why I kiss my guy friends hello, but limit greeting her husband to a handshake.

My answers to both of these questions had less to do with me, and more to do with our society and the double standards it imposes on us:

To my son, I said that I felt obligated to cover my shoulders getting from point A to point B in Cairo because the people looking into our car were not used to seeing bare shoulders. I explained that while, on the one hand, I have no issue exposing my shoulders, I have a huge issue being a source of entertainment for passers by. If they want shoulder porn (because that’s what it is to them), they will have to find it elsewhere!

To my friend, I explained that I will start greeting her husband with open arms the day he allows (yes, allows) her to greet mine with a peck on the cheek. Once again, my rationale is that if her husband thinks it’s pornographic for her to kiss mine hello, then by all means he’s not getting his cheek porn from me!

I believe in personal freedom. Veiled women have as much right to exercise personal freedom as do I. They have the right to wear what they want, where they want. They should not be denied access to bars or beaches just as I am not denied access to mosques or sermons. They should also have the right to wear their veil without being made to feel uncomfortable or out of place – even if that place happens to be a bar.

By the same token, I too should not be made to feel uncomfortable or out of place anywhere. It is from this angle that I approach the whole maillot shar3ee topic. I will leave aside the maillot shar3ee women and what they’re wearing because so much has been said and apparently done about it. I want to talk about the men who come to the beach with these women:

If their wives, girlfriends, or significant others feel the need to be sealed from all angles by a maillot shar3ee, then isn’t it likely that they will be ogling those like me who to them are wearing “skimpy” swimsuits?

Isn’t it likely that people like me will feel out of place?

If I feel the need to cover my bare shoulders in Cairo so as not to offer shoulder porn to those who aren’t used to it, what am I supposed to do on the beach? Am I expected to be a source of entertainment for the men? Because, let’s face it – they will stare.

Even the women stare. The other day, I made the mistake of walking into a store in Cairo in knee-length shorts. It was 45 degree heat, and I stopped to buy something on the way to Sahel. The shop attendant, a woman wearing a 16-layer veil and very very heavy green eye shadow could not take her eyes off my fat, unattractive legs.

To me, she’s the one that’s out of place and weird-looking in this heat. Yet, to her I was a sight for sore eyes. To me, I think she attracts more attention in her layers and green eyelid paste than my fat legs. Yet, she couldn’t help but stare. Why? Because she’s not used to it.

Imagine the fiesta that I will offer the men who are not used to it.

I have one veiled friend. Yes, just one. And to be honest, I don’t really think of her as being veiled. The fact that I don’t see her as being veiled has less to do with her piety and everything to do with the fact that she doesn’t make me feel lacking or out of place. I find it unacceptable that strings need to be pulled so she can get into certain places because it makes her feel uncomfortable.

Is it too much to expect reciprocity? Is it too much to expect that I not be made to feel uncomfortable in the one place I am at ease in?

My parents, and their parents before them, grew up in a cosmopolitan, tolerant Cairo. A Cairo in which women wore mini skirts and shorts without giving it a thought. Many history books later, Cairo couldn’t be furthest from its glorious past. As I write this from my little bubble, I know that my kids will never live in a tolerant, multicultural Cairo.

I concede that Cairo has been taken, and that my daughter will never confidently wear shorts on a hot day in Cairo without risking harassment or being judged by women and men alike. Is it too much to ask that she be left at ease in the little corner of the country that is the beach?



WE SAID THIS: Don’t miss Veiled Women in Egypt Stand Up Against Anti-Veil Movements and check out more posts by Noisebynose on Facebook.

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