Page last updated at 10:20 GMT, Monday, 29 March 2010 11:20 UK

Jerusalem Diary: Cairo views

Huda Lutfi sculptures
Making light of "living in a police state"

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Cairo


Old Cairo hands like to reflect on how much the place has changed in recent years. One of the most striking changes, they say, is in the growing number of women wearing the hijab or niqab.

The result: the messy, congested (a Cairo-based friend came up with the word "thrombotic" to describe the capital city) streets have become more showily Islamic.

But amid the angry whirl of Cairo traffic is a throwback to a different view.

'Egypt's Awakening' by Mahmoud Mokhtar
Egyptian women are not pulling back the veil

Carved, on a heroic scale, and placed in the centre of a roundabout close to the zoo at Giza, is a statue entitled Egypt's Awakening.

Its sculptor, Mahmoud Mokhtar, completed the work in 1928. It shows a sphinx, flanked by a woman. Her right hand rests on the sphinx's head.

With her left hand, she is ripping back her veil.

In the words of "Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhood, 1900-1930", the woman "symbolised both the Egyptian peasantry who embodied the authentic national character of Egypt and (in the gesture of the removal of the veil) the need for social as well as cultural modernism and liberation".

It is not a sculpture which would be commissioned now.


At the same time, some Cairenes say it is wrong to see the greater prevalence of the veil as one-dimensional Islamicisation.

Huda Lutfi is a Cairo-based artist, most of whose work has, as she puts it, "dealt with the feminine".

She is not a fan of the veil, but she says that a lot of the younger women who are wearing a hijab are "having a great time": they are "embellishing" it, she says, and "quite often wearing tight jeans".

She had her own change of direction in her latest exhibition in Cairo. Making A Man Out Of Him marks the moment she decided, as she puts it, "to flip the coin". She subverts a series of iconic masculine images.

Those images are not entirely Arab or Egyptian, but some are. Among them, are Egyptian soldiers, pasted on to sunglasses, which then adorn sculpted heads - some wearing moustaches, others lipstick.

The soldiers themselves elicit the artist's pity: "They are a caricature of masculinity; they're very poor; they're conscripted; they're doing very menial tasks."

Huda Lutfi says she was nervous about creating and exhibiting these "risky" pieces. But she says she wanted to show how the security forces are "everywhere… we are living in a police state".


Identity magazine has a rather more breathless view of gender. It is a glossy, English-language monthly, aimed firmly at women, and with a circulation across Egypt, of 17,000.

Its November issue, The Bad Boy Issue, is typical. The articles include Sexual Addiction (page 42), The Myth of Mr Perfect (page 48), and Egypt's Most Eligible Bachelors (page 62).

But before we get to those pages, there is a double-page spread, headlined The Way To Do It: Learning From The Enemy (page 20). The author's thesis is that Arabs should become as proficient as "world Zionists" in presenting their case.

The Zionists' skill is all the more impressive, the article argues, because they rely on myths - in this case of the Holocaust.

"The Jews not only blackmailed Germany into paying millions of dollars to Israel as compensation for the alleged massacres, they have actually blackmailed most European countries into legislating laws condemning even discussing the truth of this massacre," the article contends.

I asked the managing editor, Rola Kamel, why she had included this polemic.

Her first response petered out, mid-sentence, into a nervous giggle.

She then explained that her readers are keen to have their "politics" fix, as much as they want to read Can't Love Boring Mr Nice" (page 46).

"We always have protests here in Egypt about the Jews," she explains. "It is part of the Egyptian culture. You cannot deny it. Politics is part of our identity."

Here is a selection of your comments on Tim Frank's diary from Cairo:

You can't blame the Egyptians for being anti-Israel, it isn't just the Israelis that are the victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Egyptians too lost relatives in conflicts of the past. To add on to that, a lot of Arabs nowadays have a bone to pick with Egyptians because of their support of Israel and growing anti-Palestinian agenda. To be honest, I don't see what the veil has to do with anything negative. It is a woman's choice to wear it, why are western people so against that freedom? Isnt that part of what the west stands for - freedom and democracy? Or is it only a freedom when it isn't Islamic?
Ahmed, United States

Great point Nellie - I see so many women living in the point you have just made. I don't think the west empowers women, it traps them into believing that they are free.
Dee, London

I agree with Nellie, but I know for sure that this article doesn't represent the full view of Egypt's religious orthodoxy. Women in Egypt (Cairo in particular) are becoming more westernized, and wearing the hijab does not represent religiousness anymore; rather it only represents tradition. I'm a Muslim and I know people in Egypt are gradually becoming less religious, and I hate to see that. Wearing the hijab cannot be used as a scale for religiousness, if crimes do exist or if people swear all the time.
Ehab, Cairo, Egypt

Frank's article simply parrots cliches about life in Egypt as seen through the eyes of visitors. The veil does not only represent an Islamic way of life, it is a search for a cultural identity that has been eroded by the westernization of society on the one hand and alienation on the other. Poverty, corruption, poor education and a myriad of other social and political problems have led to this alienation. Thus, people are in need of a strong identity which can maintain what little dignity they have control over.
Amira Makhlouf, Cairo, Egypt

Very sad to see that even amongst the "intellectuals" within the Arabs basic anti-Semitism is a "cultural" thing.
Ziv, London

The denial of the Holocaust should not be perceived in the same manner in Western countries than in non-Western countries. As much as this may be revolting to most Western readers, the Holocaust is most absolutely not a reference in non-Western peoples' collective psyches: to take the example of Egypt, only the very few members of the 'Western-educated elite' can actually relate to the Holocaust as a history-defining moment. I believe that this omission is opportune and not to be misinterpreted as anti-Semitism.
ToShi, Cairo, Egypt

One cannot compare a country like Afghanistan and Egypt. Egypt allows women to vote, to buy property, to be educated and to be in positions of power. In Islam and in Egypt, men are required to provide women with a dowry as well as gold at the time of marriage amongst numerous other rights. But of course this is not equality and empowerment to women is it? Perhaps women are empowered in the West, where men do not marry them, where they have children outside marriage and are not given any support from the 'father', where women believe that feminism is dressing half naked and having a one night stand, where women are expected to pay for things and to work to support the family; of course this is female empowerment!
Nellie, Nottingham, England

Jewish Holocaust denial is largely illegal in the EU, but not in Islamic countries, where it's commonly believed never to have happened.
Desiderius Erasmus, UK

I can agree with Jed Nightingale on the Muslim world. But have you thought of where the US is heading, a country which was once the best on freedom of speech? Have you seen what happens to people who even "smell" of Islam at your airports? We are all heading the same way.
Abdillahi, Oslo, Norway

Interesting to see how the British press accepts the growth of the veil in Egypt so readily and less tolerable in Afghanistan. Does the growth of religious orthodoxy in Egypt and Afghanistan help women become more independent and less dependent on a male-dominated society? I doubt it and so does the British public. Most countries where religion dominates, the basic freedoms are much more curtailed. Pity that so much of the Muslim world is heading that way.
Jed Nightingale, New York

Print Sponsor


Tim Franks 29 March
Views from Cairo



Jerusalem Diary: Legal or illegal
07 Jan 10 |  Middle East

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific