Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The Colonization of Propriety


I have been wearing a headscarf for 16 years now and I never bought a “hijabi” swimsuit until yday.

My cousin (also wears a headscarf) had told me having kids would shift my mindset about this, and she was right. I didn’t care for 15 years if I never swam in a pool or sea again. But for my child, experiencing it, I would do anything to make it something she can do with both parents and not her dad alone. Not that there’s anything wrong with the way it’s been.  But if both of us can do it, she can spend more time doing it. And she deserves that. 

So let me get back to the Colonization of Propriety.

First of all, I am at a 5-star hotel and I was shocked to see many headscarfed women wearing these full-body suits at both the beach and the swimming pool. This is shocking for two reasons:

  1. Hotels of this kind have a Western/elitist flavor which usually has restrictions about dresscode in pools etc
  2. I have never seen this happen except in open beaches where there are no rules. Never seen it in a pool

Now this is a colonization of my sense of propriety because in my culture, it should make more sense to have rules about how much skin people reveal rather than how much they hide! I realized suddenly that in my culture, allowing this should be the norm and should actually not be shocking at all.
But there’s another layer of course. An elitist one. Because growing up, the kind of women who got into the sea fully dressed were lower social classes and they weren’t wearing special clothes and it bore no dignity. I realize now that I despised that, judged them for their desire to have fun. Bit more… I wanted to distance myself from them. Which is hilarious because one time when I was 16 and on a high school beach trip I jumped into the sea with my shorts and t-shirt because even though I hadn’t planned to swim, I couldn’t help myself. And given that I haven’t been inside water except twice in the past 16 years, this was surprising for me (even back then I could survive without swimming in water; I loved it but could totally resist the temptation…. Usually). 

Which brings me to the next point. Dignity. Even though in more recent years many headscarfed young and older women of my socioeconomic class have started wearing these full-body swimsuits, I still found them not to be too dignified and it felt like they didn’t fit the modesty of the headscarf. 

But today I saw all these women doing it up close and I watched my girl in the water with her dad. And her looking at me with a yearning in her eyes. And I thought, “I could have that. Give her that”. And I saw no loss of dignity in that.

So we went out of our way today to go and buy one. We even found a (ridiculously expensive) Speedo of real good quality which hopefully (or at least according to the salespeople) dries so fast it wouldn’t cling. Preserving dignity.

I think of myself earlier,  chasing my daughter around the hotel lobby, carefree and totally focused on the fun we were having. Somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered if that was inappropriate. But I pushed it back. Dignity, what dignity? Propriety is to have fun with my child. I can’t think of a reason to worry about anything else!


  1. I like your interpretation for your feelings toward doing something your really don’t like it to have quality time fun with your daughter, lucky you there are a lot of options nowadays, back to my kids childhood there was no such options, but all mothers at that time were setting on the swimming pool and fathers only inside with kids. To tell you the truth I lost a lot of fun and sometimes I just wanted to jump with my clothes which of course didn’t happened at all.
    Full body swimming suit have been in the market many years now, however I couldn’t buy or wear one, all model for me look unappropriated even with trade mark “marks and spencer” and others. Now at my age it’s not about resisting to jump into the water it’s about why I cannot enjoy the things I like just because I don’t want to reveal parts of my body. So I am sharing my solution which make me very comfortable “wear a normal one peace swimming suit, wear on top a swimming shirt or a loose rash guard, and a long protected pants.” Perfect for me dry fast, look nice, even I didn’t swim I am comfortable on the beach if I want to have a walk beside the see, or just play on the beach with kids.
    Some sites from where you can order
    There are many mores but these sites prices are reasonable for something I use three times a year maximum.
    The most important question for me is “if swimming shirts and pants are something so popular in the west, people wear it everywhere to protect themselves from the sun damage to their skin, why most of hotels in Egypt refuse ladies full swimming suit to the pool, they even don’t know nothing about protective swimming clothes?” The rule is wearing the normal swimming suit.
    Have fun with Hoda wearing the speedo you bought, I am sure you look wonderful in anything you wear
    Happy Eid my dearest friend.

  2. Thanks for this Maha, and Eid Mubarak!

    For me this is a question of normalcy – what is normal and what is not. Even in Muslim societies, these are moveable goalposts and we do not need to stray far from home, or look back much in time, to see how there is always some “new normal”.

    Who makes these decisions about how others should dress and present themselves in public in order to be “dignified” and “proper”? Should we really predicate “respectability” on the appearance of others, or how far they seem to agree with our opinions and behavior? Respect for others ought to be a given. It should not be withheld because of superficial differences.

    In a patriarchal society, it goes without saying who makes decisions about propriety and why they make them. It is about control, and in patriarchal society, control of women and containment of women’s power is the paramount concern. The state feminism of the Baathists in Iraq, Syria, and Libya sought to control women by bringing them out of the direct protection of their traditional families – through the liberation of women, all people were brought under the direct authority of the state. For the Islamists, the return of women to the authority of the mahram, within their families, extended their control by placing men in an intermediate position of oppressed (by the state) and oppressor (of “their” women).

    This is always political.

    On a personal level, I think that everyone deserves respect, regardless of how they choose to dress or what they choose to believe. I think that respecting others is normal. Not becoming angry or upset because someone is wearing something that I would not is normal. Not judging others because of their apparent religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, is normal. We have a conflict between those who want to extend and include, and those who want to restrict and exclude. In the Muslim world, women’s dress is very much part of this conflict.

  3. Thanks Maha for this.

    You reminded me of my childhood. I hadn’t been very motivated to write anything recently. You inspired me.

    “Propriety is to have fun with my child. I can’t think of a reason to worry about anything else!”

    I think your last sentence is cause for celebration.

  4. When I read this it made me sad. Being in water gives me so much joy. I am glad, however, to hear that your daughter is helping you play at the beach, cause as adults if often forget the joy of play.

    • I neglected to say something really important. There are women only beaches in Egypt and women’s days/times in pools. I just nevee took advantage of those (also of course it would be more exhausting not to have husband there but i could go w a friend)

  5. It’s rather fair, for all the western cultural references I likely drop, that I had to look up in google to find out what is a “hajibi swimsuit” just to be sure I understood what you were writing about. I’m not ignorant of the reasons for headscarves and the hajib (My one visit to the middle east was to Qatar, not sure where what I saw in custom was on the spectrum of tradition).

    So what I think I understand is that the swimsuit is quasi marginal as to what you feel acceptable to honor tradition, yet at the same time balancing with wanting your daughter to enjoy the beach?

    I am not seeking an explanation, just letting you know I’ve read the post several times, still not fully sure I understand, but appreciating more the nuances of culture you share.

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