Egyptian feminist defies social norms by using her wardrobe

For Dena Anwer, clothing is a tool with which to induce change.
February 18, 2018
Egyptian feminist Dena Anwer. 			                         (Provided by Amr Emam)
Challenging taboos. Egyptian feminist Dena Anwer. (Provided by Amr Emam)

CAIRO - For some, clothing is all about appearance but for Dena Anwer it is a tool with which to make a statement and induce change.

The 35-year-old one-time pharmacist is out to change Egyptian society by changing the way women dress and she is starting with herself. She said sleeveless short dresses, cold shoulder tops or knee-length outfits are not mere clothes but “war tools” she uses to fight for her cause.

In a country where sexual harassment is rampant, some might characterise Anwer’s efforts as insane but she is not budging from her goal to challenge taboos, defeat social control of women and fight political Islam.

“The Islamists invented sexual harassment to force women to wear the hijab and totally cover themselves as if their bodies are something they should be ashamed of,” Anwer said. “They wanted to change the way women dressed as a means of controlling them and turning them into political tools.”

Anwer talks with women everywhere she goes, appears on television and speaks at public events to drive her point home. She initiated an online campaign, “Put on Your Dress and Become a Female Again,” for the liberation and empowerment of women through clothes, noting that, unlike today, Egyptian women were elegant and fashionable seven decades ago.

It was a time when the British occupation of Egypt was in its last days. Cairo was a city of fashion and women wore what were considered short and revealing clothes.

Egyptian black-and-white movies show a society in amity with its diversity. Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side without problem. Women fully covered walked in harmony with those wearing revealing clothes.

“Sexual harassment was not known in society then,” Anwer said. “Women were free and beautiful.”

Men were elegant, too. The fez was the national head cover for men in the country. Rarely did a man go to work or walk on the street without his full suit.

The change in national outfits, especially for women, started with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most vibrant Islamist organisation, which is considered the mother of political Islam.

“The rise of such movements was behind the change in the clothes everybody wore, men and women,” said poet Ferdaus Abdel Rahman. “They succeeded in convincing people that there is an Islamic attire and an un-Islamic one.

“Unfortunately, the people ended up putting on ‘Islamic clothes,’ though their hearts and minds are void of the ideals of this great and tolerant religion.” Abdel Rahman said.

Millions of Egyptians who travelled to work in the Arab Gulf during the oil boom in the 1970s returned with significant cultural influences from the very conservative societies in which they lived abroad.

Scarcely any woman in Egypt today wears a short skirt, a sleeveless shirt or shows her hair in public. Some people consider this a sign of piety. Anwer said it is a form of coercion.

While growing up in the central province of Fayoum when Islamist movements were at their strongest, Anwer’s primary school Arabic teacher used to put the rules of grammar aside and tell students about Sayyid Qutb, known to be the theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Anwer said she was 11 when she was sexually harassed the first time. Her family’s reaction was that she deserved it because she was not wearing the hijab and she never did.

With her gold-dyed hair and revealing outfits, Anwer draws attention and curiosity.

“People on the street find my clothes strange because few women are dressed like me but, when more women are dressed like this, society will change because such an outfit will become common and this will help reduce sexual harassment,” Anwer said.

Women’s rights advocate Hala Abdelkader argues that it will take a great deal of education and cultural reform for social attitudes to change.

“When you compare people’s behaviour today and seven decades ago, you can easily see the enormity of the cultural deterioration and devastation we have reached,” Abdelkader said. “For a long time now, Egyptians have been blindly following cultural influences coming from outside, which is why they are losing their cultural peculiarity, only seen in the old movies at present.”

However, Anwer said she is confident that she can make a difference by moving ahead with enticing women to wear what they want. She said in doing this, she is not only liberating women of social fetters but economically empowering them.

Anwer said she meets women every day who tell her that they wish to wear revealing and beautiful clothes like she does but are afraid of their male family members and of sexual harassment.