Tall, stunning Caucasian models pose in sleeved or short-sleeved swimwear, with or without matching leggings, shorts, sarong, or head cover, with the backdrop of a white sandy beach and turquoise water. Dubai-based Egyptian influencer Hadia Ghaleb is trying very hard to make modest swimwear fashionable.
It has taken her two years and “substantial funds” bankrolling international influencers and top photographers and models to launch a marketing campaign designed for the standards of Egypt’s elite. But like the elephant in the room, the burkini lies at the heart of this endeavour that has hit the airwaves.
And, like most taboos, it has been eschewed. A portmanteau word between bikini and burqa (the head-to-toe full cover-up with only mesh slots for the eyes that has been projected by Western and secular narratives as a symbol of Muslim women’s oppression), the burkini is a contentious concept at best, a derogatory term at worst.
The B-word is deliberately avoided in Ghaleb’s crusade to normalise swimwear for veiled women, deemed inferior and low-class by elitist values in Egypt. “Swimwear pour toutes” (for all) proclaims the English-language website selling a wide range of cover-focus sets that ship worldwide.
With prices starting at LE2,834 (U$150), the website informs visitors that most designs are sold out. Launching in April, it was in the thick of Egypt’s summer season, mid-July, that the modest swimwear collection made its first big splash from a quirky coloured touring bus doubling as a mobile store parked at one of the North Coast’s most expensive resorts, the Emirati-owned Marassi.
The fashion line became instant news across the long stretch of Mediterranean beaches that is Egypt’s North Coast, shortened as Sahel (coast), which extends approximately 500 km from Alexandria to the Libyan border. But it is only “New Sahel”, the 200 km between the once-popular resort marina in Alamein City to Marsa Matrouh that is considered the worthy destination of Egypt’s rich and where developers compete to sell overpriced exclusive waterfront resorts.
Dubbed “the wicked Sahel” because of its expensive prices, this side of the northwestern coast is probably the only area in Egypt that is occupied during the summer season by the upper classes.
In Cairo and elsewhere, the one per cent is distributed in pockets across the city, making Sahel the seasonal quintessence of Egypt’s classism. While the entirety of the North Coast is covered with exclusive gated communities that enjoy private access to what are essentially public beaches, its west side stands out as a spectacle of affluence.
It is observed, much like Mexican television soap operas, by the rest of the Egyptian public on the other side of the mammoth income gap divide with amusement and aversion.
In this Mediterranean ghetto, a Westernised cultural ethos has been entrenched over the past 15 years. Compounds with foreign, mainly English names project images of young, European-looking, bikini-clad and lean women as the focus of their billboard themes, pledging everything from “tropical” and “California” to “Riviera” landscapes. Little or no interest is evident in exploring the region’s unique topography or the culture of its indigenous Arab tribes.
The burkini is a rarity, as it is frowned upon, or in some cases banned, by the management. Some developers bluntly ask potential homebuyers if they have veiled family members to determine their eligibility.
Ghaleb, the 29-year-old influencer, said she got the idea of her modest swimwear collection when her friend was denied entry at a restaurant because she was veiled with a headscarf covering her head.
Photo courtesy of Hadia Ghalib website
“I thought, what if I made this fashionable?” she said in a TV interview. A marketing professional with a trained mindset for branding and her own Dubai-based company, Ghaleb pursued a project to commodify the veil and reinvent it in a neutral setting.
In other words, she has stripped it of its controversial, undesirable religious roots and kicked off a trend. “I made [modest swimwear] trendy, rather than a religious obligation since fashion will appeal to all mindsets,” she said.
STARTING A TREND
Ghaleb’s TV interviewer Radwa Al-Sherbini concurred, adding that she has received calls from viewers who say that the collection has either addressed a fundamental sartorial problem for them at the beach, or, as some have claimed, has made them feel more tolerated in compounds that ban burkinis in swimming pools.
Ghaleb says her line has far exceeded the projected sales target. The buzz it has created in Sahel and beyond in the media might have introduced some nuance to the tired, annual bikini-burkini debate. Zeinobia, author of the influential “Egyptian Chronicles” blog proclaims that Ghaleb has “exposed Egypt’s classism through her swimsuits”.
Egypt’s upper class, she argues, has welcomed the swimwear line because “of its four-digit price tag in Egyptian pounds.” For the first time since the advent of the New Sahel, “we no longer hear about a burkini ban in this or that resort,” Zeinobia observed.
Sada Al-Balad, a local media outlet, went further, claiming that Ghaleb’s line has put an end to the bikini-burkini conflict. However, the designer’s goals have been more modest. Ghaleb’s website describes the product as an “inclusive” line that bridges the “swimwear divide” to “empower” women.
In an interview, she explained the deliberate omission of the burkini in her sales campaign because it is specific to bathing suits designed only for veiled women. “By nature, it is a discriminatory word. It singles out veiled women who are, at the end of the day, just wearing a swimsuit that makes them comfortable.”
“Just say maillot,” she stressed, a reference to the French-origin (maillot de bain) colloquial Arabic word in Egypt for swimsuit. The bikini-burkini controversy has served as reminder that the issue of personal freedoms is being dodged, observers say.
“It is one of those issues that we can’t really talk about honestly and with clarity, so we resort to a proxy, in this case the bathing suit debate,” said Reem Saad, an anthropologist who has published on identity and cultural dynamics in contemporary Egypt.
“This is also about less-fortunate women who live in the provinces, who have the right to reject the headscarf, but who are disregarded because they belong to the weakest strata,” she said in an interview. “Their rights are erased in the name of cultural specificity.”
Personal freedoms are guaranteed by the Egyptian constitution and the law, but that is not reflected on the ground, Saad observed. A woman cannot wear a bikini on a popular public beach such as Sidi Bishr in Alexandria where standard swimwear is either a burkini or normal clothes.
“The authorities are party to this because they do not protect or enforce the law,” she said. “So, no, in reality, we can’t claim that people have the right to personal freedoms, let alone to wear what they want.” Developers in Sahel, on the other hand, are telling the privileged that they can provide a space for personal freedoms at a price. “They are selling this lifestyle because there is demand for it,” Saad said.
And with it often comes a version of modernity that is anti-tradition and sees it as backward, says Ramy Aly, an assistant professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo. “It is coming from a superficial and aggressive understanding of secularism that is visible across North Africa.”
For those who pay a million pounds to buy a Sahel home so that they can pretend to be in the south of France or Spain, it is not acceptable to end up seeing the burkini. Like in France, which has had its own burkini ban, Egypt has its own version of Islamophobia, Aly said. But unlike in France, “there is no real debate because we don’t have the public sphere to discuss such issues.”
European women are a favorite theme in billboards marketing north coast seafront projects (Photo: amira Howeidy)
Historically, tasyeef, the Egyptian phrase for a summer beach holiday, takes its roots from a Western tradition during colonial times. “Modernity and colonialism in the shape of the 1882 British occupation of Egypt arrived at the same time and within the same context,” says Amina Elbendary, an associate professor of Arab and Islamic Civilisations at the American University in Cairo.
This was reflected in how the rich, and also the effendia, the educated middle class, shifted to Western-style fashions that became more widespread in the 19th century. “The idea of going on holiday to spend time by the sea and of swimming for entertainment did not exist before that,” Elbendary said. “Those who went swimming were fishermen, people who had business being in the water.”
In a private resort in New Sahel last weekend, it was business as usual. Dozens of people were swimming in the picture-perfect turquoise water of the Sidi Abdel-Rahman Bay area. A bikini-clad movie star was playing a card game on the white sand, a chatty group of women near the umbrella next to her were sunbathing in their all-black burkinis.
Freska (beach wafers) and gandofli (clams) vendors were calling out for customers, and teenagers were huddled over their loud JBL speakers and pizzas. Conversations switched between Arabic and English.
A young woman emerged out of the water wearing a long-sleeved Hadia Ghaleb aqua-set with matching leggings, her black hair dripping with sea water. Sherine, 40, said she had bought the entire collection from Dubai where she lives. “It’s not easy to find such bright matching colours in modest swimwear, so I didn’t think twice.
They arrived the next day.” “I wasn’t aware of the commotion around this fashion line,” she said. “People stop to ask me where I got my mayot from, so I’m glad I got mine before they sold out.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.