Funerals I have attended in Egypt are usually held at a mosque’s function hall set aside for funerals, where you can enter with your shoes as it is separate from the mosque. It is lined with chairs for people to sit on, tissue holders and water bottles placed on tables at each intersection. A waiter will come in regularly, offering tea and coffee on a tray. It is a segregated event, so a separate hall for the men and women.
According to different family’s expectations, many women will attend a funeral wearing black, with minimal colors. However, there are other funerals where women tend to wear all kinds of colors. I have seen green shirts, flowery dresses, yellow scarves. Some funerals I have attended quite literally turn into fashion shows, with women trying to compete with each others’ jewelry, clothes, hair, shoes, and bags.
Having this in mind, I decided to wear a plain black dress to a particular funeral. To complete the ensemble, I wore a blue jumper. I was not aware that at this particular funeral, wearing another color other than black would be an insult. It’s all quite arbitrary.
It was quiet as I walked in. The imam’s voice reciting the Qur’an drifted from the speakers at the corner of the hall. As I made my way through the aisle, a particular woman dressed in black kissed her teeth, looked up and down at me in what I could only describe as disgust, and loudly exclaimed to the hall of women, “Look at this girl coming in dressed in blue. Does she have no decency? Shameful!”
Somehow I kept calm and carried on. I walked towards my father’s cousin. I greeted her, her children, sat down and was given a copy of the Qur’an. The words were out of focus, however, as my body started showing signs of shock, catching up with what had just happened. But the mind-baffling thing was, sitting there, I felt exposed.
Nonchalantly, I looked around to see what the other women were wearing, to see what drove this woman to make such a display of anger. And I saw her point. This wasn’t like all the other funerals I had attended in Cairo, some in the very same hall. This was quite different. These women were wearing black, from head to toe. Some wore jeans. Some wore scarves with a white pattern. I spotted a grey suit in the corner.
Wearing black to mourn is actually traced back to Pharaonic tradition, but conservative families have taken it as part of their cultural code. Of course, a funeral was not the time or place for a confrontation. I just let it be, bearing in mind that this was an interesting cultural lesson learned.
Leaving the hall, I was greeted with a wave of relief. It was an intense forty minutes, all because of the outburst of a woman who could not really control her anger at what she saw was the inappropriateness of my navy-blue jumper.
Not all funerals have such expectation when it comes to dressing code, but in future, I knew I would be checking who the family was and where they were from in Egypt– this would give me an idea if they were traditionalists or more modern –before I decided what to wear.
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