What I Learned When I Tried Shooting For My Fashion Blog In Egypt

The burgeoning fashion and beauty industries in the Middle East are becoming an international power, and with them, massively successful Middle Eastern bloggers and photographers have begun to enjoy many of the same perks as their Western counterparts. Just like ones based in New York, L.A., London, and Sydney, Middle East fashion blogs represent a spectrum of people, personal styles, and philosophies. From religious fashion bloggers who advocate for modest dressing to fashion-forward bloggers who champion standing out, personal style in the region is, as anywhere else, nuanced and varied.
Yet, blogging in the Middle East comes with its own set of challenges. Attitudes throughout the region range from the more lax, like Dubai, where you can essentially wear whatever you want, to Saudi Arabia, where women are not permitted to drive or even leave the country without explicit written consent from a male spouse or guardian. But regardless of city or state, there is value placed on the traditional.
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Photographed by Alya Mooro.
As blogger Lana El Sahely told Savoir Flair, the Middle East’s first online fashion magazine, “We need to always be careful to draw the line between being fashionable while remaining conservative and respectful of the traditions.” In most cases, this means dressing modestly, and in some countries, wearing a hijab is required by law. Failure to follow suit in public can result in punishment; models were recently arrested in Iran for posting pictures of themselves on Instagram without the veil.
This is not the case in a country like Egypt, where I’m originally from and where I recently shot some street style looks for my blog. But in Egypt, too, women’s clothing and bodies are policed, either for being too conservative or not conservative enough. Women who do not cover their hair or who wear clothing deemed inappropriate are often met with insults, spitting, and sometimes even physical abuse.
Despite this, Middle Eastern individuals are taking to the internet more and more to document their personal style. As Mariyah Gaspacho, a blogger based in Dubai explains: “It was difficult when I was first starting out and when blogging was new here, but the past two years, blogging has hit the Middle East, so it’s a lot easier now to go around the city and shoot.”

That said, having shot most of my blog content in London, it was with both excitement and trepidation that I took to the streets of Cairo a few months ago to shoot some looks from one of my favorite Egyptian designers, Amina K, with Egyptian photographer Aisha Al-Shabrawy. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, but I attempted to cater to the environment as best I could, ensuring to style the pieces in such a way that I would not be showing too much skin.

My family members were not very happy — to say the least — with what they considered my complete insanity in wanting to draw attention to myself in this way in Cairo (they have absolutely no problem with me doing it elsewhere), potentially due to the fact that Reuters statistics reveal that 99.3% of women in Egypt have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetimes. This is compared to 65% in the U.S. and U.K. I was however, pleasantly surprised at the humor and good grace with which we were met; I only occasionally felt uncomfortable.

Of course, each country is culturally and politically different, but here are five things I learned while shooting there...
Photographed by Alya Mooro.
1. Be Respectful
Most people I spoke to stressed the importance of being respectful to a country’s customs and dress codes. For the most part, that means not showing too much skin. Keep your shoulders, anything above the knee, and your cleavage covered up. Tops with spaghetti straps should also be avoided. Most countries, barring the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iran and the southern parts of Iraq, don’t actually legally enforce dress codes or force women to wear veils, but it’d be a bit like if you were to walk down a busy NYC street wearing just a bikini — you have the right to do it, but you’re going to feel like the odd woman out, which could be uncomfortable; people will definitely stare and probably make pretty nasty, sexual remarks and even feel like they have the right to come grope you.

Al-Shabrawy explained: “If my subject is a female wearing anything revealing, she will have to keep herself covered until we get the shot ready. Once she's in a revealing outfit we have to be as fast as possible before people gather. This is for her protection, especially knowing the amount of harassment on Cairo streets.”

Indeed, the easiest solution (though, it’s also the least empowering), is to have a man with you. Even though having a man around obviously doesn’t actually make a situation safer, in countries where men are seen as strong and as an authority, it does appear to deter or at least cause other men to think twice before approaching. As Al-Shabrawy explains: “[Having a man around] makes us less approachable and more protected.”

2. Get Comfortable With People Staring At You
Regardless of what you are wearing, people are probably going to be staring. Dana Al Khalifa of The Overdressed, a Bahrain-based blog, told Refinery29, “I shot a Burberry campaign in the [market] one time, and everyone was staring. There was a circle of expat labor workers surrounding us; [I’ve found that] they’re mostly the people who stare as they often come from largely populated, under-developed countries so they’re not used to seeing people dress in metallic pink-lamé coats in the middle of summer.” Indeed, staring is very much a common thing in the Middle East and not considered particularly rude or ominous.

3. Be Aware Of Who Else You're Photographing
The concept of family honor is an important idea in the Middle East and, whether or not you agree with it, honor is often dependent on the behavior of the women in the family. This often manifests itself as men feeling like they need to chaperone and protect their female family members. Many therefore stressed the importance of asking permission before taking a photograph of someone, or, if you’re posing for the picture yourself, making sure no one else is captured in the frame without their knowledge.

Indeed, while in other parts of the world, especially at Fashion Week, people dress up especially to be captured on camera by the multitude of street style photographers, in much of the region, it’s not okay to take a photo of someone without asking for their permission first.

Moez Achour, a street style photographer based in Dubai explained how it works: “We make sure not to include random people in photos, we never shoot when there is a lot of people out in public, and we always avoid areas that are restricted or residential with a lot of locals… Be careful not to include women or children, too; that is a big no-no out there.”

But it’s not only women who may not want to make up any part of a photo. Indeed, while shooting at a famous café in Cairo, we ran into some trouble when the owner became concerned that we were capturing some of his clientele in the background. We had to show him the pictures, delete the ones he didn’t approve of, and eventually had to retire to the most hidden spot in the café where no one else was in view. Even then we had to be super quick and as inconspicuous as we could.
Photographed by Alya Mooro.
4. You’ll Probably Have To Ask The Government For Permission — Seriously
“Unlike in other parts of the world, in Dubai you often need permission from the property manager or owner to shoot in particular areas. Even outside the buildings, the streets around them often belong to the owner of the building or district,” explained Olga Lobanova, a Russian blogger who now lives in Dubai.

This is the case in much of the Middle East. Al-Shabrawy explained that in Egypt, you even need an official permit to be able to use a professional camera on the street. Without one, you could get arrested.

If in doubt, the general rule at the very least, explains Olga, is not to take pictures in front of mosques or government buildings.

5. Be Human
Admittedly, considering the high rate of sexual harassment in Egypt, I was a little concerned with how the shoot was going to go. Turns out, I didn’t really have anything to worry about, thanks in large part to Al-Shabrawy and her friendly demeanor. She was totally casual and relaxed; she engaged any passersby who may have stopped and stared for a little too long, smiling and joking and offering to take their picture, too.

I also noticed that she took every opportunity to show her appreciation for the people who allowed us to shoot in their vicinity undisturbed: by buying some apples from the man whose fruit cart I was posing in front of, by taking a picture of someone’s daughter and promising to send it to them and so on, she spread good vibes by paying it forward.

All of the countries I’ve had the fortune of visiting in the region are truly, truly spectacular in terms of everything from the wealth of culture to the insanely beautiful beaches and old mosques to the generosity and good nature of the locals when they felt like you were making an effort to be respectful of their customs, space, and time. Be informed, be aware of what’s going on around you, and be friendly, and you’ll soon have some awesome pictures for the ‘gram.

As Hoda Katebi, an Iranian blogger and photographer who lives in Chicago and recently traveled through Iran on her own to create Tehran Streetstyle — the first-ever collection of the country's modern street style fashion photography — said: “I actually feel more unsafe in parts of Chicago walking alone at night than in Tehran. Of course, it is important to always be aware of your surroundings regardless of where you are.”
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