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Political science without clothes: the politics of dress or contesting the spatiality of the state in Egypt.

The old story about "The emperor without clothes" is a parable used to alert people to the obvious that they see but deny. This is precisely the purpose of this essay. By focusing on the politics of dress, this essay attempts to expose some of the problems associated with the study of Egyptian politics, namely the Cairo-centric approach to Egypt. A subquestion of this is whether or not such an approach can be justified given the multiplicity, hybridity, and variability in dress that indicates a much more complex Egypt than has been represented in much of the current scholarship. This discussion of dress and politics will show that there are some areas which are overly "covered" in the current scholarship, namely, the areas that seem to be most analogous to current styles in Western political thinking. This limits the possibility of meaningful analysis of the complexity of Egyptian politics. More specifically, this essay's focus on dress and the multiplicity of style of dress reveals the complexity of issues such as the nature of the Egyptian state and its articulation with regional and global arrangements and provides new insights into the dynamics of state-society relations and the issues of power and hegemony. This focus will highlight a dynamic Egypt (not just Cairo) in which there is more of a state-society interpenetration rather than state-society relations or more specifically, the collapse of state-society boundaries. The study of dress will show that the politics of Egypt exists at the sutures of hybridity and informality, and that what happens at the level of the formal institutions is of limited consequences, at least domestically.

The absence of dress from the study of Egyptian politics represents one component of the metaphor, "political science without clothes," used in the title of this essay. Without considering clothes, for instance, Egypt appears as a centralized state and homogeneous. Thus the analysis of power has focused on the manifest, naked, and concentrated formal power of the state and other formal institutions (the western dress of the society, as it were) at the expense of the diffuse, fragmented, and localized disciplinary power and technologies of resistance - the informal politics and economy (or the jallabia society) in which most people function. Moreover, state and society are seen as separate domains. State autonomy is not only assumed but reduced to the personalities of leaders such as Nasser and Sadat.(1) The rise of studies of civil society in the Middle East has trapped the discipline into yet another false dichotomy of states vs. civil societies, which is not at all different from weak states/strong states, center/periphery, base/superstructure and East/West dichotomies. Yet as I will show, these artificial dichotomies fail to consider the degree of overlap and intermingling between the categories. Of course without elaboration, these dichotomies have created a peripheral discussion and focused the study on the relevance of the Middle East to Western ideals, processes and debates more than on the Middle East itself. In the case of civil society studies, not only is the dichotomy misleading, but more questions are now being raised about the political economy of writing (i.e. Where is this money coming from? and, Where does the trail lead?)(2) As the intellectual fads in political science oscillate between "bringing the state back in" or "bringing society back in," the relation between the two has continued to be or at best reduced to a spatial view of both state and society. The state has always been presented as a spatial or a geopolitical entity. Metaphors from architecture such as state building dominate the discipline. Spatial metaphors are more dominant in the international relations subfield than in comparative politics. Yet architecture is too massive and permanent to show the flexibility of state-society relations.

Analysis of dress reveals a few problems about both Egyptian studies in particular and the way we do political science in general. To begin with Egyptian studies, the variability in dress is not reflected in the Cairo- centered or northern-centered research. By focusing on traditional areas of research and traditional research questions such as state autonomy, even sophisticated scholars who have spent a great deal of time in Egypt fail to engage informal politics or state-society interpenetrations, or even to expand their area of research a few miles outside Cairo. Raymond Baker's Sadat and Afte(3) is one such Cairo-centric book focusing on various groups in a classic group approach analysis with interpretive theory as a background theme. Hamied Ansari(4) manages to move a little outside Cairo toward a small delta village; yet the theme continues to be the interplay between this village and the central government. Cairo politics are still the most prominent. Although Robert Bianchi brings the concept of corporatism to the study of Egypt, he remains within the Cairo domain. Kirk Baettie's Egypt during the Nasser Years would be better titled Cairo During the Nasser Years. The subtitle "ideology, politics and civil society" is further misleading.(5) Without a discussion of clothes these works could "pass" or be cloaked as studies about Egypt as a whole. Most of these works have focused on the Egypt that is wrapped in Western clothing, or Westernized Egypt. The vast domain of jallabia Egypt is abandoned altogether and with the consensus that this Egypt is irrelevant. What interests many of these scholars in spite of their insightful analysis is the familiar, or the least different. Even those who study peasant politics like Nathan Brown fail to consider seriously the jallabia domain. Yet Brown is certainly ahead of many in considering his topic in the Egyptian context rather than a Western context, something that James C. Scott did years ago by actually doing empirical research in Malaysia. Gellis Kepel's most popular book, Muslim Extremism in Egypt, a discussion of resistance under the larger and faddish umbrella of "Islamic fundamentalism," is another exercise in textual analysis also limited to Cairo.(6)

A distressingly small number of scholars have ventured outside Cairo or formal politics. Patrick Gaffney is one who did his field research in Minya, in Middle Egypt.(7) Diane Sinegerman, though still Cairo-centric, has attempted to venture into the sh'abi and jallabia world. Her Avenues of Participation reflects a sophisticated interdisciplinary approach that allows her to define politics more broadly and to capture the informal politics and informal economics that constitute the bulk of political participation in Egypt.

In Egypt, there are multiple layers of tensions among the various types of "traditional" dress in different parts of the country and between these areas and the "western" or westernized dress the government requires of citizens in government offices, schools, and clinics. This picture is further complicated by different notions of private, semi-private, and public spaces. By dealing with the multiplicity of contexts, layers, and power configurations which dress illustrates, we can shift the focus from either state or society to the dynamic processes and the politics of camouflage, cross-dressing, and hybridity.

Dress as an analytical category, as I will show below, is very important in bringing in the temporality of state-society relations and revealing a wider division between cultural time and state time. For instance, if one looks at a random issue of Al-Ahram newspaper, one will find four dates written on the top of the front page. The first is the date according to the Muslim calendar (the 10th of Zi al-Hijja, 1417, during which Muslims are preoccupied by the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca). This is followed by the Gregorian date, which is used to demarcate state time (17 April 1997). Parenthetically next to "April," one finds the Levantine equivalent, Nisan. Every Gregorian month is matched by a local designation. The latter is a remnant of the time when people from the Levant were prominent in Egyptian journalism and when Egypt had a sizable community of Syrians and Lebanese. In fact Salim and Bishara Taqla, the founders of Al-Ahram were Levantine themselves. A fourth date that is written next to the previous two or three is that from the Coptic calendar (9th of Baramouda, 1713, a date that peasants use to designate agricultural seasons and some festivals relating to harvesting the crop). These markers designate both the various cultural and state times and link them to a specific group and probably a specific mode of production. Dress is an indicator that also marks the temporality of state relations with the various communities and makes the complexity of Egypt more pronounced.

To clarify this, I will describe the kind of dress Egyptians wear during office hours or state related jobs, which usually start at 8:00 a.m. and end at 2:00 p.m., the kind of dress they wear when they get off work, the constant shifting of the self presentation of individuals, and its implications for new thinking about state-society relations. Dress is defined here as what people use to cover their bodies and the additional accessories or body supplements or modifications used to accentuate and/or exaggerate one's height as a way of eluding or confronting power.(8) But dress is also a language in which people express their identities, affiliations, and values, and more importantly, it is a language that can be readily changed in different social contexts. "Shapeshitting," so to speak, is a very central strategy for social actors wishing to penetrate the state and for the state to penetrate society. As Egyptians change into varieties of "western" dress during work hours (usually business suits for men and skirts and blouses for women), the state security apparatus is usually in "plain clothes," or local dress - informal polo shirts and jeans in Cairo and the big cities, and local jallabia garb in the provinces. Thus, like social actors, the state changes dress as well. The fact that the state changes clothes less than the public does not mean that it does not need to or that power is concentrated at the level of the state. If the linkage between economics and politics is to be assumed, the "westernized" institutions of the Egyptian state may be nothing but costume. At the level of economics, Owiess argues that the informal economy of Egypt is larger than that of the reported national income.(9) If the bulk of economic activities is happening outside the formal institutions, why should we expect that the bulk of politics happens at the level of the formal structure of the state or take the "state in western disguise" seriously? On the domestic level, the formal and the legal state may appear as nothing but a hoax. Thus the "western dress" of the state is another disguise; real politics are local.

This is not to embrace fully the metaphor of "life is a theater"; social action takes place in a power context and has real consequences. Dramaturgy in the sense of a performance with actors, a stage and an audience may be useful as an approach to clarify the complexity of clothing and public performance on stage. However, it tells us very little about off-stage performances where, according to James C. Scott, most resistance to power takes place. Another shortcoming with this approach, as it is used to analyze the hijab in post-revolutionary Iran, is that it assumes that the audience exists outside power relations.(10) However, life as theater is useful in clarifying the main points about dress and performance. Yet the main focus here is the relationship between onstage and off-stage and the absence of the boundary between the two. Dress as means of authenticating social categories, legitimating and contesting authority, and as means of the producing and reproducing values(11) is a central component of my argument. Furthermore, as I describe "Egyptian" dress, I will analyze the points of hybridity or cultural brokering and the interaction between the local/national mode of dress and the dress of people who live adjacent to or outside the Egyptian national boundaries. This is mainly to avoid confusing the vocational comparative/international dichotomy of the discipline with the actuality of social phenomenon. Through the analysis of dress as a strategy for undermining authority and hegemony, I will draw implications for the larger issues of the spatiality of the state and state-society relations. Considering clothing enables us to investigate when people become entangled in the web of the state, its time, and its modes of identification, and when they elude the state, slip into more comfortable arrangements in terms of both dress and social relations, and take personal control over their outward appearance.

Beyond the Egyptian case, dress has long been central to both domination and resistance,(12) especially in the case of new and revolutionary regimes. Kamal Ataturk started his social revolution by ordering Turkish men to wear the Western-style hat, instead of the traditional fez. In contrast, Mahatma Gandhi popularized the dress of the villagers and Indian peasants by wearing a khadi and pajamas.(13) Mao-Tse Tung banished not only the traditional robes of the Mandarin courtiers, but the western style clothing of the educated middle-classes and the female qi-pao, obliging both sexes to wear the loose blue pajamas of the peasants. Indeed, as late as the 1980s, wearing western clothing could lead to a Chinese citizen's being publicly denounced as a "capitalist roader." Obviously, in the minds of these government leaders, changing people's outward appearance, whether by force of law or social pressure, was a means of changing people's values.

Moreover, while Ataturk accepted Westernization as an unquestioned path for modernization, both Gandhi and Mao proposed an alternative program which started with the rejection of Western-style dress. Nasser of Egypt was in principal against the Western modernization program at the level of ideology, but in terms of clothing he was more of a Kamalist rather than a Gandhiite or Maoist. Nasser addressed his people in a business suit. In spite of his friendship with Nehru, Nasser did not emulate the Indian politics of dress. The significance of the politics of dress in other social formations has led me to investigate the politics of dress in Egypt, and the extent to which the resistance to the state-approved western-style dress represents a resistance to both the government and the values associated with it. Yet it is important to remember that if clothing can be symbolic, it can also be disguise; clothing is far more easily changed than minds.

So far, studies of the politics of clothing in the Middle East has focused on the female and the female body both in terms of covering and (dis)covering, while very little attention has been given to the male dress, let alone how dress raises new questions about state-society relations in the Middle East. Studying dress as a whole category has also the benefit of moving the hijab away from the religious/Islamic domain to the political domain. It is also important to go beyond women's dress because over-studying the hijab and the female dress raises serious epistemological and methodological questions. The focus on female dress, at least in the Egyptian case, ignores its context within the styles of dress adopted by both men and women, and what this clothing signals. In considering women's clothing, we must therefore look at it anew by focusing on the dynamism of women's creative resistance and by contextualizing women's dress and observing the changes in relational terms. Women's dress is not only a religious symbol; it sends a mixture of class, social, and political signals as well. In studying the hijab (again in Cairo), Arlene Mcleod points out that the hijab can be used by urban women in Cairo as a sign of either accommodation or protest.(14) In addition, religion may not be the most significant component in identity construction and communication in public spaces. For instance, a Coptic Christian woman in the rural area dresses similarly to her Muslim counterpart in terms of covering. Both the Coptic and the Muslim woman are signaling their rural origins and their respectability, which are more immediately important to their social identity than their religion. Among "westernized" females, it is almost impossible to tell who is Muslim and who is Christian on the basis of dress. Moreover, if we compare women's and men's headcoverings in upper Egypt, we will find that there are more actual meters of cloth in a man's turban than in a woman's hijab, and that a man's jallabia is longer than a woman's dress. Coming at the hijab via a detour of analyzing the male dress has the potential of clarifying the politics of the hijab and women's covering by enabling us to see the elements beyond religiosity, namely, the political, in the dress of both men and women.


Despite the dominant myth that Egypt is a homogeneous society, Egypt has a great deal of diversity and variability, as Andrea Rugh shows in her pioneering study of Egyptian dress. Because Egypt is an old society that exists at a geographical crossroads, Egyptian dress reflects both the traces of the layers of a past that was not wholly indigenous and the current borrowing of style from neighboring social formations. "Several Egyptian population subgroups share elements of dress with people living contiguous to the political boundaries of the national state."(15) Dress in this sense provides a wider range of variability that can further clarify other variables in attempting to explain Egyptian class distinctions via income or occupational indices. It can also reveal the degree of involvement with both state and society depending on how much disguise is needed as the individual actors move in and out of society. Rugh devotes three chapters of her book to analyzing "the geographical and community understandings that are delineated by dress."(16) Although she classifies Egyptian dress according into two larger categories-that worn by the masses of traditional social classes, rural and urban, and that worn by the educated, mostly, urban classes, Rugh manages to go beyond these broad subdivision to describe the differences among the rural areas and the variability in women's clothing. However, one can still divide Egyptian dress differently, namely according to native and Western, urban and rural, elite and non-elite, northern and southern, and of course male and female dress. All of these variations in dress not only reflect different ethnic, class, and cultural affiliations, they also show the multiplicity of hegemonies these individuals have to speak to. In this regard, dress undermines the dominant notion that Egyptian society is homogenous.


Egyptian men's traditional clothing also differs by region. For example, the male jallabia does not exist as a uniform dress code. The jallabia of the rural areas of the north is usually referred to as the Sika Hadeed Jallabia, a long, wide garment with wide sleeves, a round neckline with a deep vent in front reinforced by three or four lines of heavy embroidery. The overall A shaped garment is worn with a local wool taqiya on the head (a hat similar to a fez). Unlike southern men, northern men do not wear a turban.

In southern Egypt, men wear a jallabia similar to that of northern Egyptians but full enough at the bottom to allow a man to ride horseback. In fact it is a class marker, (often a false one) within upper Egyptian society suggesting that the wearer is a horseman, an Arab, rather than a farmer or fallah. His crocheted white linen cap is then covered by 4 to 6 meters of white cotton cloth wrapped around the head as a turban. This turban, or imma, is supposed to be long enough to serve as a shroud and thus acts as a constant memento mori, again identifying the wearer with the religious warrior of old. The southern Egyptian also wears a wool scarf around his neck or over his head. Finally, he also carries a staff or walking stick, approximately the height of a man, which could double as a weapon. The total effect is extremely imposing, since both the fullness of the jallabia and the size of the turban make the man appear larger than he is, and the staff is an additional reminder that it would be unwise to start an argument with this man. Indeed, among upper Egyptian villagers, this traditional dress is identified with masculine power.

Perhaps for this reason, contemporary southern men wear the jallabia all the time unless they are working for the government or a business associated with westerners, i.e. hotels, restaurants, etc. If they are working for the government, some upper Egyptian males dress in western clothes to go to work; when they finish work at noon, they go home and change into jallabias. Other men keep western style clothes in the office, go to work in their jallabias, and change into their western costumes at work. An adult man in the village is not taken seriously unless he is wearing a jallabia. Western clothing signifies immaturity in the sense that a man is playing the part of a school child, and indeed even schoolboys often change into their western clothing just before they reach school or wear them under their jallabias to avoid ridicule. Essentially, the state obliges the villagers to don an attire they feel to be unmanly in order to be part of the state, a kind of ritual surrender of manhood, but the villagers reclaim both their manhood and their independence as soon as their time is their own. With the change in dress, other changes take place, too.

My observations reveal that the language of southerners, in particular, also changes. As they dress in western clothing in the work place, southerners often switch to the Cairo dialect in speaking to their colleagues or to the people coming to their offices. The change in language or accent adds a further dimension of strangeness and eliminates familiarity. Thus men in southern Egypt can act in the work place in ways that would be considered shameful outside. In addition, men are not interrogated by their friends and relatives if they offend them at work because a man in his office is not the same as a man at home. Social norms also start the process of shifting at the door of the work place. In a sense, the disguise works, or at least everyone is willing to adopt the pretense that the man in the office is a different person. State affiliated dress is considered shameful to wear after work. Not only just dress, but in the south taking a case to court or reporting some local incident to the police is considered a violation of community ethics. It is also shameful to allow someone's wife or sister to go to the police station or court. Problems relating to private matters are solved according to the rules of a local majlis (council of notables and sometimes just elders).

One exception of state dress that can be worn in society without the wearer being perceived to be weak is the uniform of the police officer, perhaps because of the arbitrary power of the police within Egyptian society. The case of Captain Muhammad, a man from my village who works for the police in Cairo, is very illustrative of the power of dress. When Muhammad returns to the village on leave, his parents ask him to wear his uniform despite that fact that he himself wants to become part of the local community. His parents want to display their power to the community via the uniform to show that the family has influence with the government. They could have a bothersome neighbor arrested, for instance, or at least the neighbors will feel intimidated. For this reason, although Muhammad's actual wages are low, his family still supports Muhammad who lives in an expensive apartment in Cairo. They can see him wearing the uniform in the village and thus gain more social power for the family, and they can penetrate the state by having someone from the family inside it. Thus it is the opposite of what modernization theorists claim. The state has not penetrated society in this instance; society has penetrated the state. Nor is this situation uncommon. The relationship between state and society is dialectical. It is the absence of understanding of this interpenetration between state and society that limit most Egyptian studies.


Women's dress is not as fixed as many would assume, nor is the state's response to it. One example to illustrate this situationality and contextuality of women's dress is the response of campus police in two different universities requiring different modes of dress. Campus police in front of al-Azhar University prevent non-veiled women from entering the university because being non-veiled in that context is interpreted as defiance of patriarchal norms of modesty; at the same time the police in front of Cairo University were turning fully veiled (niqab) women away and admitting only the non-veiled, because veiling is interpreted as a Islamic defiance of the state's officially secular policies.(17) This contextuality of dress and what is appropriate in any power-laden context is very obvious here.

In addition, there is a great deal of variability in women's dress.(13) There are regional differences in the style of women's dress. One can identify the difference between northern dress from the delta region and southern dress. Beginning with the city of Giza, a few miles south of Cairo, one can easily identify almost a different country on the basis of dress alone. This marked difference is described by one traveler thus,

The landscape did change as soon as the train was outside Cairo. Instead of green fields and villages as far as the eye could see, the green was limited to a narrow strip on one bank of the Nile. . . . I saw more camels and fewer donkeys and buffalo, more men in gellabeyah [jallabia] and fewer in Western clothing, more farm women in black and fewer in bright colors and pastels I had seen on women working in the fields in the Nile Delta.(19)

However, educated women in particular often dress in a hybrid style of a modem long dress (like the maxi skirt sometimes worn in the West) and hijab, which signals a more cosmopolitan respectability, rather like the Gulf-style jallabia does for men. There is a difference between head covering of the muhajaba (a woman who consciously wears the head covering to signify religiosity) and a mu 'adabah (polite and modest woman) whose head covering connotes only respectability. A long white or gray head cover draped on the women's head and reaching almost her waist over a long grayish jallabia signifies religiosity. The white and or pastel head cover with a bright dress is a sign of a young, polite working woman. Women who work outside the home would wear a cosmopolitan mu'adabah style of dress to go to the office, but more traditional clothing in the neighborhood, since after work hours it is more important to stress her sense of age-decorum than her degree of education. Even western-educated and highly cosmopolitan women who wear "European" dress (normally carefully color coordinated outfits with matching pumps and handbags, pantyhose, knee-length skirts with defined waists, long-sleeved blouses, and heavy make-up and jewelry) at work or on public social occasions change into jallabias at home or when they are with women friends in their neighborhoods. As with males, these women fall under formalized power as they enter state time and re-enter local time at the end of the work day.

It is important to note here that as with her male counterpart, the normal dress for Egyptian women is not Western-style dress, and the form of western dress they adopt that is considered respectable for an upper class educated woman is Western dress at its most expensive, uncomfortable, and restrictive. This costume, incidentally, also signals a woman's social class, since it can be worn without harassment only by women who can afford to drive cars and limit their walking in public to the expensive and Europeanized sections of large cities. What seems to be western style women's clothing indicates something very different in Egypt than it would in the West. Far from meaning that she is "emancipated" from the restrictive hijab, it means that a woman is willing to undergo considerable physical and social discomfort in order to show herself as part of the Europeanized upper class-either an old pro-colonial family or their present-day counterparts. And this costume too can be a disguise.

The issue here is not dress per se but rather how dress reveals the complexity of the Egyptian terrain of politics and thus suggests a different approach to capture the greatest bulk of the political in the Egyptian setting. Now let me turn to how the actors use dress and how dress reveals to us larger articulations with the social and discursive formations of Egypt. In the following sections where I look at the issues of disguise, passing, and hybridity, I will attempt to link Egypt to the adjacent spaces, namely the Gulf states, Sudan and Libya and to also show the articulations within the different social formations within Egypt.


In a densely power-laden context, disguise and passing is the name of the game. People have to weave in and out of both state and society to get what they want and avoid or minimize risk. The use of dress as disguise, or as a way of "passing" (that is, of pretending to be a member of a different ethnic or cultural group to avoid discrimination), is most obvious in big urban centers such as Cairo and Alexandria, where state-society interpenetration is greatest. In Cairo, men wear Western clothing not only during work hours, but after work as well. This is not always because these people have internalized the state modernization program, but rather because many people move in the larger overarching western hegemony of transnational corporations and big business. Moreover, many people in Cairo are not Cairene. There are reportedly about two million people who move in and out of Cairo everyday (i.e. people in character or costume).


Other people in Cairo dress in Saudi style thube (Egyptians call it jallabia), especially on Fridays as they go to the mosques. Tadyun, or religiosity, is connected with Saudi dress. During summer holidays, many of those are in fact Saudis or Kuwaitis. In certain sh'abi (popular) neighborhoods young men almost always wear the Saudi style jallabia, not the fallaheen or southern jallabia. The Saudi style jallabia signifies education, cosmopolitanism, and wealth and thus it can compete with Western style clothing. The person wearing it could have worn western clothing and may have more Western clothing, but preferred the Saudi jallabia. With a net cap, it conveys Islam and wealth, and without the net cap it conveys wealth and worldliness. The economic and the religious power vested in the Saudi style jallabia is what makes it compete with the Western dress. In fact during Friday prayers even those who usually wear Western clothing wear a Saudi style jallabia. The southern and northern jallabia are rarely seen in the big cities except on older men who live in Cairo, but came originally from villages.

On the other hand, younger rural immigrants to Cairo prefer the Saudi jallabia over Western clothing because it gives them a way of "passing." Their southern Egyptian dialect immediately marks them as non-Cairene, and the common stereotype of Southern Egyptians promoted by the government media is that they are poor and ignorant. The representation of southerners in the state owned media both as the salt of the earth and fools in jallabia is very common. In spite of the ineffectiveness of the mass media in convincing southerners to take off their native dress and change it to western, at the popular level in Cairo in particular the southern jallabia, especially when worn with the turban, signifies ignorance or unpredictability. To Westernized Caireines, the clothing places the wearer outside the realm of civilization. Even Westernized Cairenes discover that they are not western outside Egypt. Cairenes use the phrase, Labis al-'Imma (to put a turban on his head) to mean to make a fool of someone.

However, the southern accent is close to the Saudi accent and thus southerners in Gulf jallabias are mistaken for rich Gulf Arabs rather than seen as country people. Assimilating into a larger hegemony of Gulfi language and dress accords southerners more respect in Cairo. This is so because people who have stayed long enough in the Gulf start speaking a hybrid language.

In this context, those who have accepted the dominant ideology justify it by referring to those who have not as fools. The reality is that people of the south are not fools. They take off their turbans whenever it is necessary in an act of symbolic compliance during work hours and put it on after work hours for the dignity it gives them among their peers. In fact, they are able to fool the government when they take their turbans by feigning a compliance that they do not feel. And one could also suggest that they put a turban on the Caireines when they pose and pass as Gulf Arabs. The fact that southerners would rather be mistaken for Saudis than be seen as Egyptians says something about these people's conscious attempt to escape the superimposed Egyptianness (that is really pseudo-Western). Although in their disguise, they fool both the state and the Westernized Egyptians, people in the provinces have learned how to move in and out of these hegemonies. This borderline living should raise serious questions about the articulation of Egyptian modes of style, living and culture with other neighboring countries. The juridical borders of Egypt do not coincide with its socio-cultural boundaries. The issue of boundaries throughout the Arab world is an elusive one, especially if we add cultural and economic boundaries to the legal boundaries of the state. Traditionally, there have been trade zones between Sudan and Egypt and Libya and Egypt. This resulted in areas of cultural overlapping that make the differences between people of the western desert of Egypt and Libyan or the southern Egyptians and the Sudanese very complex.

Moreover, because of the omnipresence of the plain clothes police, the wily villager can adopt another disguise in Cairo. If he is young, has very short hair, seems very guarded in his speech and has a cohort willing to (ad)dress him as "Ya Bey" (sir or officer), he can wear informal western dress and pass as a plain clothed policeman or state security, a tactic guaranteed to discourage cheating cab drivers and shopkeepers. Many young Egyptians from out of town find it a very useful ploy to pretend that one is connected to the power structure. This is yet another example of "shape-shifting," or of the society interpenetrating the state.


And yet if dress scan be a disguise, it can also be resistance. Here it is very important to note that the state deliberately promotes Western dress over any other form of dress. Through its own factories such as those at al-Mahallah al-Kubra, the state produces only Western style polo shirts and Western trousers. The fact that these factories promote western style dress says something about state involvement in dressing Egyptians and thus molding them into its modernization program. Most clothing produced at these factories are also distributed at state owned outlets such as Omar Effendi, and many others. The term Effendi in the name of the distribution outlet is also indicative since the term Effendi has usually been used to refer to state bureaucrats.(20) Most jallabias are not mass produced, but hand-made by local tailors. The only mass produced jallabia is that of the style worn in the Gulf countries, and it is not produced by the state but rather in Taiwan and imported from Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The tailors who make the local jallabia are disappearing, and in spite of their rarity, still the majority of Egyptians wear the jallabia with its various styles. In spite of the cost of the jallabia, locals prefer it over Western clothing. Bearing in mind the low-income jobs these locals hold, one can interpret this as a clear sign of resistance to the state's sponsored dress. This challenges the state on various levels.

Culturally there is the appearance of confrontation between modernization and native mode of living. The local population also challenges the state at the level of economics because it is willing to pay more to a small business tailor instead of buying state produced Western clothes. These communities also challenge the hegemony of the state politically. It is very telling that most Islamists' resistance in Egypt exist in the jallabia domain or the places where jallabia is worn most of the day, except during state related work hours. After 2:00 p.m. people in Minya, Assiut, Qena and Aswan wear their local style jallabia. Thus they exist in their local domain culturally, politically and economically the remaining sixteen hours of the day. Very little resistance to state hegemony is found in places where Western clothing is the dominant mode of dress.

Here it is also important to note that the jallabia of the Islamists is not local, but not western either. Thus the Islamists can be seen as challenging both state and society, although less the society and more the state, since the jallabia is a modified local one rather than an outright overhaul of the normal mode of dress.

Dress usually exaggerates appearance and with it power is exaggerated; e.g., the full body exaggerated by the jallabia and the 'imma that exaggerates the height of a man. All is trimmed by the tight western clothing and the absence of a headcover. As the individual enters the dress of the state, he becomes less than his size in terms of clothing. Thus it is important to see what happens when men change from local dress to Western dress. The interplay of the jallabia domain and the Westernized domain also reveals the economic and political system that protect each of them. The jallabia is protected by the socio-cultural and religious system as well as the informal politics of indigenous organization. The Western dress is protected by formal state power and global dominance of the West


"Cross dressing" in the traditional definition of the term, meaning the wearing of the clothing of the opposite sex, may be publicly absent in Egypt. However, a broader definition of cross dressing - that includes not only those in positions of power dressing like the less powerful, but the powerless concealing their identity by dressing "up" like the dominant groups reveals that Egyptians engage in a great deal of cross dressing. Because of their historical subjugation, natives learned to cross-dress as a way of coping with power. That is, they dressed in the clothing of the colonial masters when they were forced to be in contact with them, but retained their own traditional dress once they were outside the areas controlled by the western powers. These habits continue until this day, perhaps in part because the native elite adopted both the clothing and many of the attitudes of the departing colonial powers. Thus, the native's distrust of power extends to the local but post colonial elite who currently rule Egypt. The best way to deal with power is to pretend to be part of it when it works for you and disguise yourself from it whenever it comes at you. Dressing up or dressing down is a way of dealing with various manifestations of power. A peasant from either the north or the south dresses up to go to the city to deal with the government, at which time he often adopts western clothing to more closely resemble the people he is dealing with, or they wear a more elaborate and expensive version of their traditional dress when having business dealing with Caireines, in this case in order to avoid being taken for country bumpkins.

Cross dressing is contextual and is usually interpreted in relational terms. For example, a westerner who adopts "native" dress is cross dressing that is deliberately wearing the clothing of those he perceives to be less powerful - which marks him as eccentric or "in costume." He is expected after all to wear the dress of his own country even when he travels, because it is the clothing of the more powerful group. In contrast, an Arab in a western country is perceived as normal when he is in western dress and in costume if he wears the clothing of his own country. Here the criteria of madness and civilization, East and West, native and western becomes apparent.


Hybridity can be found in a very unlikely place: Egypt's religious university, Al-Azhar. To begin, the attire of the Grand Mufti or the head of al-Azhar University is a modified kind of the local jallabia. Al-Azhar's associated school requires their students to wear a jubba, a formal jallabia-like garb that conveys religiosity. If students cannot afford a jubba, a jallabia with a smooth and small headcover would do. Al-Azhar students who study in the scientific college(21) wear shirts and trousers if they so desire; they may wear a jallabia as well. Al-Azhar is a point of hybridity of state mandated dress, local dress, and its own Azhar dress which is a modified jallabia and a smaller 'imma. It is very important to note that the jubba is a tighter version of the Sika Hadeed jallabia and the 'imma is half the size of the southern headcover. In the past, al-Azhar graduates used to carry a staff; now they do not. Here it is obvious that the technology of state power has affected al-Azhar not only in smoothing the wrinkles of tradition in the 'imma which has became smaller and smoother than the "traditional" one. Al-Azhar is also not as rigid as one might suppose. In the case of dress it is obvious that al-Azhar is a mixed category where the "traditional" can be mistaken for the religious and the trousers and shirts of the students of the scientific colleges can be mistaken for Western. It is interesting that the highest form of hybridity and accommodation in the various styles of dress, at least for males, can be found in a place usually seen as the bastion of tradition. Dress makes the mediating position of al-Azhar in Egyptian politics clearer, since the institution accommodates a variety of dress styles, at least for men.


From the above discussion of dress, it is obvious that Egypt is a very complex society with a dynamism and a flexibility that adopts certain forms of clothing to certain places and certain moments. Those who are connected with government jobs wear Western clothing from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and Egyptian clothing at home. The actors also respond to different power relations and contexts. The question now becomes, Why is the complexity of Egypt as manifested in the variability of dress not reflected in scholarly studies of Egyptian society? Taking this variability of native dress and its hybridity seriously, especially in the case of Egyptians who have traveled to the various neighboring countries or of the sons of villagers who have worked or received their education in the city, alerts us to the various levels of articulation both within and outside the social formation. It further suggests that power is diffuse or at least concentrated in different loci. Both as a social construct and a social text, dress takes different meanings and different interpretations in various discursive and social contexts. To understand this difference requires a new knowledge of the voices of those people who dress differently. To suppress these voices and this knowledge in favor of a totalizing narrative of a homogenous Egyptian social formation is to ignore the empirical and emphasize the discursive moments of Egypt. To have a better understanding of Egypt, thus, requires authors to stop responding merely to each other and instead to look at Egypt in an Egyptian context. Instead of Beattie responding to Binder and embracing Waterbury in terms of state autonomy and political economy as an approach, for instance, it may make more sense to do field research in various areas of Egypt, not as anthropologists, but as political scientists. To focus on the local setting and its power relations is not to overemphasize micropolitics, but rather to integrate local nodal points of power in a system of dispersed and diffused power. Contestation of power in Egypt and elsewhere is not necessarily rooted in the economy and the state but in various locales and moments throughput the system.

But the problems of Egyptian studies are not isolated from the larger theoretical problems in the discipline. These problems, I imagine, stem from a long tradition of binary opposition about the economy and politics or the base/superstructure dichotomy of the classical Marxism, the Orientalist tradition of East/West opposition manifest in Western writings from Weber to contemporary social scientists, and the current civil society against the autonomous state argument in the writings of Stephen Krasner, Joel Migdal and many others. Another binary opposition is manifest in the center/periphery writings of world system theory. This has been further complicated and problematized by the many native scholars of the core of peripheral societies adopting an orientalist pose vis-a-vis their societies. Unfortunately, debates about state-society relations in the Arab world are usually a reflection of Western debates about the same issues. One can make a case for intellectual dependency if one is to look only at this correlation, especially in the case of the rise and decline of the study of the state. One example is the increased focus on the study of the Arab state in the late Eighties in correspondence with state study in the West during the same period of "bringing the state back in."(22) The same can be said about the rise of the study of civil society in the West and its current rise in the Arab world. The main point here is that the study of Egypt and the Arab world are not dictated by local phenomenon, but rather by the popularity of particular concepts. Instead of allowing these social spaces and activities to flow in their local jallabias, many social scientists, including natives, insist on squeezing them into tight western clothing and analytical categories regardless of their relevance.

Given these methodological and theoretical problems associated with the study of one of the most open countries in the Arab world, the concern should be doubled or even tripled when we talk about closed societies like Saudi Arabia. This speaks of inadequacy not only in our tools but also our outlook and our ability to do social science research. These problems are further complicated by the normalizing power of the Middle East Studies Association and its journal. New students are socialized into established discourses on theory and methods that allow little room for creativity. Thus, the question becomes, Where to go from here? At the level of methodology and tools, we are required to learn the language of the places and subjects we study to have more sophisticated debates. The lack of a serious command of the Arabic language usually trivializes the debate. For instance, the debate on the relevance of political culture as an approach in the study of the Arab world has taken the shape it did because those who are debating culture do not have the ability to read and write Arabic like native scholars. I have yet to see a single presentation at MESA conducted in the native language. Serious scholars should have the ability to read and write in the language of the subjects they study. While those of us who have lived in the U.S. for a number of years feel reluctant to write anything about state-society relations in the U.S., a graduate student or a visiting scholar often feels confident enough to write a book after spending three month in Jordan or Egypt. It is time to take these societies seriously. If we are to avoid trivialization and or the reduction of, say, Egypt into Cairo, as this essay shows, our analysis will be far more likely to reflect actual social phenomena instead of our biases. At the level of theory, we may be better off if we work at the extremities of power and use specific phenomenon and specific settings to answer larger questions instead of taking the big issues head on. My own work on Upper Egypt shows that Egypt is much more complex than initially perceived. This complexity requires theoretical and methodological agility if we are to have a better understanding of the phenomena. So far the complexity of Egypt is captured more by literary works than by social science texts.(23) By using dress and its associated metaphors, this essay has attempted to capture some of the complexity of Egypt and at the same time expose the limitations of contemporary political science research on Egypt. The main goal is to go beyond these limitations and usher in a new approach to the study of Egypt that moves from the seemingly "trivial" specificity and works its way, both inward and outward, toward a less confident but more reflexive scholarship that allows for greater theoretical and methodological interrogations.


1. One example of such studies is John Waterbury, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983).

2. See Ali Abdullatif Ahmida's critique of civil society studies in the Middle East, "Inventing or Recovering Civil Society' in the Middle East," Critique, Spring 1997.

3. Raymond Baker, Sadat and After (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press, 1990).

4. Hamied Ansari, Egypt: The Stalled Society (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986).

5. Kirk J. Beattie, Egypt During the Nasser Years: Ideology, Politics, and Civil Society (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994).

6. Gilles Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

7. Patrick D. Gaffney, The Prophet's Pulpit: Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994).

8. For a summary of the evolution of social anthropology of dress and a good discussion of definition and classification of dress, see Joanne B. Eicher and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins, "Definition and Classification of Dress," in Ruth Barnes and Joan B. Eicher, Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning (NY: Berg Publishers, Inc., 1992) pp. 8-28.

9. Ibrahim M. Oweiss (ed.) The Political Economy of Contemporary Egypt (Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, 1990) p. 17.

10. Faegheh Shirazi-Mahajan, "A Dramaturgical Approach to Hijab in Post Revolutionary Iran, "Critique, Fall 1995, pp. 35-51.

11. Hildi Hendrickson (ed.) Clothing and Difference (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996) p.8.

12. In her study of the people of southeastern Nigeria, Misty Bastain shows that Igbo women of Nigeria use body adornments to test the limits of senior male authority by wearing adornment associated with their Muslim neighbors to the north, the Hausa. For more, see Misty Bastian, "Female" 'Alahjis' and Entrepreneurial Fashions: Flexible Identities in Clothing in Southeastern Nigerian Clothing Practice," in Hildi Hendrickson (ed.) Clothing and Difference (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996) pp. 97-132.

13. For more on Gandhi and the recreation of Indian dress, see Emma Tarlo, Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996) pp. 62-94.

14. Arlene Mcleod, "Hegemonic Relations and Gender Resistance: the New Veiling as Accommodation Protest in Cairo," Signs 17, no 3, 1992. Pp. 533-577.

15. Andrea Rugh, Reveal and Conceal: Dress in Contemporary Egypt (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986) p. 4.

16. Ibid., p. 5.

17. Nazih Ayubi, Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World (NY: Routledge, 1991) p. 241.

18. Andrea Rugh's book is an excellent study of female dress in Egypt. Most of my description here depends heavily on hers in addition to my own observations. For more, see Rugh, ibid.

19. Judith Caesar, Crossing Borders: An American Woman in the Middle East (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997) pp. 78-79.

20. Sawsan El-Messiri, Ibn al-Balad: A Concept of Egyptian Identity (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1978) p. 6.

21. The scientific colleges were introduced during Nasser's rule.

22. In the Eighties when the debate on the state was popular, Arab scholars followed suit. This was obvious in the publications that came out of the Center for Arab Unity (Beirut/London). In 1987 alone that center produced Khaldoun al-Naqeeb's State and Society in the Gulf; Saad Eddin Ibrahim's State and Society in the Arab World; Ghassan Saleme's State and Society in the Arab East; and Mohammed Abdel Baqi Hermassi's State and Society in the Maghrib. This, of course, was followed by Nazih Ayubi's The Central State and Egypt and many others. This is not an exhaustive list. The point, however, is that the rise and decline of many social science concepts in the periphery is correlated with the rise and decline of the same concepts in the core.

23. See for instance, Ahdaf Soeuef's novel In the Eye of the Sun, Wagih Ghali's Beer in the Snooker Club, Brian Kiteley's I know Many Songs, but I Cannot Sing. I have already started my own project that looks at Egypt's alternative social history through the fiction of Mahfouz, Ghali, Ghitani, Souef, and Son'allah Ibraheem.

Mamoun Fandy is Research Professor of Politics at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies specializing in Egyptian and Gulf politics. He is the author of Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent (NY: St. Martin's Press, forthcoming).
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Title Annotation:Beyond Colonialism and Nationalism in North Africa
Author:Fandy, Mamoun
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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