Culture: defending Egyptian dress, defending identity

Researcher saves Bedouin, other textile traditions

19 December, 12:42

Shahira Mehrez, a Egyptian researcher and designer, wears a traditional clothe Shahira Mehrez, a Egyptian researcher and designer, wears a traditional clothe

(ANSAmed) - CAIRO - For the past 40 years, researcher, university professor, fashion designer and philanthropist Shahira Mehrez has been fighting to keep the traditional clothing styles of rural Egyptian women from disappearing into the maelstorm of Westernization, taking their identity and their ancient knowledge with them.

''I started collecting dresses from the remotest parts of the country at 16. In time, I was able to catalog and document the typical clothing of each of the 27 provinces,'' Mehrez tells ANSAmed in her boutique in the Dokki district of Cairo. From north to south, from the Sinai peninsula to Siwa, the westernmost Egyptian oasis, she has surveyed the characteristics of each region: from the garb of nomadic Berbers to that of Nile valley farmers. ''There are huge differences in patterns and crafting from one end of the country to the other, but they all refer to ancient Egypt,'' says Mehrez, who has been exhibiting her collection worldwide since the 1980s in an effort to sensitize public opinion to the richness of the rural Egyptian heritage.

Beginning on Tuesday, part of her collection will be on view at the Egyptian Academy in Rome. Included will be some galabiyas, or traditional tunics from Siwa, Nubia, and the Nile Delta Valley. ''We've been wanting to imitate Western-style dressing for too long,'' explains Mehrez, a former professor of Islamic art and architecture at the American University in Cairo and in Heiwan. ''When I was young, everything that came from Europe, particularly Paris, was fashionable, was chic. This has done nothing but alienate Egyptians from their roots. Once, women of all classes used to wear traditional clothes- from ladies to peasants. The difference was in the fabrics, the materials.'' Mehrez set out in search of the last remaining seamstresses able to reproduce traditional patterns: today in her atelier, 35 of these women work on models she has recuperated for sale in her store, such as galabiyas, abayas (worn in the Gulf region), and dresses with embroidery typical of the Sinai Bedouins, as well as objects, furniture, and gold and copper jewelry.

Also on sale in her boutique are products made by 1200 women and youth from the El-Arish Needlework Program, which was founded by the Mennonite Central Committee of North America in 1973 to develop female employment in the North Sinai, a region in which many Bedouin women are illiterate and seldom work outside the home. The head of El-Arish since 1981, Mehrez is also the co-founder of Takreem, an NGO that aids families of ''martyrs'' of the 2011 revolution. Currently, she is demonstrating against the draft Constitution. (ANSAmed).

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