The Ideal Egyptian Woman, According to CityStars Mall

For those who don’t know, CityStars mall in Cairo was the biggest mall in the Middle East until it was surpassed by Dubai Mall in November 2008.

Nevertheless, it’s still a huge mall, with (according to their website) over 550 stores, 6,000 parking spaces, three hotels, two indoor theme parks, and a 21-screen cinema complex. Over $800 million has been invested in it to date and it is visited by approximately 45,000 people each day. On the weekends, visitors range from 50-75,000, and last Eid, 83,000 people visited the mall in one day.

Basically, it’s a very popular, one-of-a-kind mall. Think H&M, La-Z-boy cinema chairs, Burger King, Spinney’s and Virgin Megastores, all rolled into one.

It’s so big it opened in two phases, and phase two is still in the process of being rented out. New stores open every couple of months (FYI, Zara and New Look are next on the list) and until one does, the storefronts used to be boarded up with an “Opening soon” sign. Now, however, we have these advertisements:


Let’s break it down, shall we?

For one thing, the location doesn’t even seem like it’s Egypt. Outdoor café’s, storefronts, scooters, bicycles, etc.

But my beef is, of course, with the women (men in these ads are severely outnumbered and are only there to eyeball the women. Nice). The women are white, dishwater blondes who are tall, leggy, extra thin and all wearing heels dressed like they’ve stepped out of a fashion magazine. Most bear little resemblance to Egyptian women.


I don’t think a natural blonde Egyptian woman exists. And I’ll eat my hat if there’s one Egyptian woman out there who walks her Dalmatian and two Labradors in a strapless dress while holding her poodle under her arm.

The way these women are portrayed, is, of course,  nothing new. All you have to do is pick up any issue of Glamour or Cosmo and you’ll see. But those ads aren’t targeted at Egyptians, they’re targeted at the magazine’s market. So why do CityStars’ apparently local ads use non-Egyptian standards of beauty? If you’re going to show beautiful women why not brunettes with curly hair and big eyes?

So I called up CityStars and asked who designed the ads. Perhaps, I thought, they were designed by some out-of-touch foreign ad agency. But no, they were designed by Egyptian Sherif Ibrahim, senior graphic designer in the marketing department. He said:

I designed them this way because I wanted a way to express what CityStars is all about. The walk from phase one to phase two is pretty long so we wanted people to have something to look at. These are cool and reflect reality.

Reflect reality? If anything, I replied, these ads are very far away from reality, and only represent a small segment of what Egyptian women look like (or wish they looked like):

Well, if you notice there aren’t any of these ads in phase one. I am addressing a certain class of women who come to phase two, which has more brands and expensive stores. So I am addressing these people, and the design is close to the people in that level. It looks chic.

(Phase one has stores like Benetton and Esprit. Phase two is more Lacoste and BCBG).

Ibrahim kind of has a point. But it’s still classist to say only the ‘rich’ of the 40 or 50 thousand daily visitors will go to phase 2. It’s not the same as having similar ads in an expensive glossy magazine only ‘those’ kind of women would see. I’ve seen myself a group of average Egyptian men snickering as they posed next to ads.

It depresses me to see how local ads are now mirroring what we see in non-local ads, and therefore tacitly accepting that this is what the ideal women should look and dress like. By holding this up as the ideal, advertisers further perpetuate the idea that this is right, with added credibility that comes with being a part of the community and saying this, not an outsider. The fact that the ads are cartoons actually makes their impact stronger than if they were just models–because if they were just models then they obviously wouldn’t have been Egyptian and therefore ‘not us.’

Plus, you’re not just promoting the way women should look, but the lifestyle associated with the look. Indirectly, you are contributing to the already existing inferiority complex, and make more Egyptian women wish they didn’t look the way they do.

The ads also reinforce the stereotype that the rich and wealthy—Egypt’s ‘elite,’ if you will—are all wannabe westerners at heart, which is an unfair accusation that become harder to refute the more we insist on portraying them this way. Flashback to my university days, where the Egyptian public at large classified all those who went to it as such. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago the university newspaper, The Caravan, published an article titled Don’t Hate me Cuz I’m Gucci:

Outside the walls of The American University in Cairo’s vast 260-acre campus, the stereotypical image of the filthy-rich, Westernized, spoiled students cocooned inside is nurtured by the Egyptian public at large, while inside the campus walls, the same image is reserved for a small minority better known as the “Gucci Corner.” […] This stereotype of the “Gucci kid” is often duplicated outside the walls of AUC and used to describe AUC students as a whole. […] Generally […] the media tries to reaffirm this image when they host or talk to AUC students by painting a picture of isolation and alienation.

The ads also assume that trendy women who are interested in fashion must be unveiled. In a country where the estimated number of veiled women is 70-80%, that’s a heck of a big minority group to ignore. In fact, it kind of reminds me of how U.S. designers are ignoring Fashion’s Invisible Woman: the average American women which is a size 14. Ibrahim answered:

You’re right, there are no hijabis in the ads. And that’s because if you look, you’ll see that the characters are all funky. I didn’t want to draw a hijabi in that funky style with tall boots and the guys.

But it’s okay to show non-veiled women in this way? Isn’t that insulting to them?

In the end, Ibrahim is not totally at fault, he’s only mirroring what a certain class of Egyptian women see themselves as. And no doubt had he shown Bedouins many would have poo-pahed. But ignoring your country’s rich Arab, Islamic and Ancient Egyptian culture is sad, especially if you ignore it to emulate and idolize another culture.

The minute I saw the ads, I was reminded of a recent incident with my little 8-year-old cousin.

She came up to me with a 10 page pop up ‘book’ she’d just written and drawn, and asked me to read the story, which went as follows:

Mark and Sue and Joe are at the office, and someone’s stapler gets stolen. After an investigation, it turns out the bearded Ahmed was the thief.

When I asked her why the bearded Ahmed was the thief, she replied innocently:

Because in the movies the bad guy is always Arab.

So sure, perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but that’s how the story goes. Blind imitation is never a good thing.

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Friday Links
  • Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    I think it is absolutely disgusting that they are all white – This is Egypt, not Iceland!

    Also, I take it no one over the age of 25 shops there either.

    The more I look at it, the more annoyed I am. The artwork is an exercise in self-hatred.

    I looked at that article about “Gucci Corner”. This whole idea of there being a set corner where they sit makes the people involved sound about twelve, it’s pathetic.

  • Rasha

    “I don’t think a natural blonde Egyptian woman exists. ”
    Well, you think wrong. Many Egyptians are blonde and yes, “white.”
    Self righteousness doesn’t excuse stereotyping.

  • Krista

    GREAT analysis, and really well-written. (LOL at “I’ll eat my hat if there’s one Egyptian woman out there who walks her Dalmatian and two Labradors in a strapless dress while holding her poodle under her arm.”)

    That story about your cousin says a lot… Wow.

  • Zara Pankhurst

    It is so unreal!! I lived for 14 years in Cairo. When I left in 2006 at least 80 of women wore Hejab, and the numbers increased daily. One must also admit that the mall itself does not reflect the realities of Egypt. Huge percentage of people are on breadline. Instead of all that money going on an ugly mall (and Citystar is the uglies mall I have ever been to), was much better spent on social projects.

  • Zara Pankhurst

    Sorry I meant 80 percent

  • Ethar

    @ Rasha: I was being sarcastic. The laws of genetics and recessive genes mean that ultimately there will be some blonde Egyptians. And I am not stereotyping, I am saying what the general population is like. True, we are lighter than most Africans, but we are not European “white.”

    @ Krista: Thanks! And I know about my cousin, it’s very sad when we begin parroting what we see.

    @ Zara: True, the mall doesn’t represent Egypt, but it’s frequented by a lot of Egyptians, who go there to hang out since there’s no entry cost.

  • Zara Pankhurst

    Ethar, You are right, there are lot of visitors there. But as the Citstars does not represent Egypt, maybe the advertisers think the ad should not represent Egyptian women either (LOL)

  • Fatemeh

    There are malls that have entry costs?! Stupidity!

    Great post, btw. :)

  • Faith

    I don’t have anything constructive to really add but I wanted to say that I totally agree with your analysis. The ads look more like the mall I frequent here in Ohio. Actually, even the mall here is more diverse. The ads are definitely self hating, sizeist, classist, and more.

  • Ethar

    @ Zara: That was exactly the designer’s point: that section was targeting ‘those’ kind of women and so the ads looked like them/ the ideal version of them.

    But because the mall is free, it’s an ideal location for a lot of Egyptian youth–from all social classes–to hang out. If you noticed, there are no benches to sit on anywhere in the mall, to discourage these people who are only there to people-watch and windowshop.

    @ Fatemeh: No, malls don’t have entry costs, but I know CityStars was considering adding them purposely to discourage people who come only to hang out.

  • Zara Pankhurst

    Ethar: Oh Boy!!! before the revolution in Iran people like him were called Gharb Zadeh, which meant those who worshiped western culture (and a very derogatory term!)

  • Nancy Elias

    I usually agree with your articles, but on this occasion I think you’re taking things a bit too seriously. I personally never thought that these signs were “supposed” to represent anything. I just think of them as cute temporary signs that are nice and attractive to look at and fit the overall shopping theme, mall identity and locations they are placed at. Taking the signs so seriously and expecting them to “represent” Egypt and Egyptians is taking the issue totally out of context and not really the point I think. Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? If you are looking for a place that represents the majority of Egypt and Egyptians, go downtown or to a local souk; if you’re looking for art which portrays this, go to a gallery. This is a mall where the majority of shops target a certain class of people and to pretend that this is not the case is to be in denial and make unfair accusations. And just to be clear, I am Egyptian, I’m not white, I don’t dress like that, I don’t walk my dogs with a poodle under my arm but I DO shop at City Stars and spend a lot of time there (as it’s one of the extremely FEW decent and safe places in Cairo where you can spend a few hours a day without being severely harassed) and I find nothing offensive about these signs. Come on, not everything has to be a political or cultural statement. Whatever happened to fun and creativity that is supposed to be part of a shopping experience? We are always so practical and analytical that we take all the fun and beauty out of life which then makes us flock to the West for it. Chill people. Life can’t be so serious ALL the time!! ;)

  • Fatemeh

    @ Nancy: keep in mind that the aim of this site is to deconstruct and analyze the messages that advertisements like these send.

  • Inal

    Ethar correct me if I am wrong- the premise behind malls are for continuos hanging out so you buy things by osmosis… Malls are for gathering large groups under one roof to give the diverse shops as much opportunity as possible for increased sales- paying at the door seems odd…

    Heck but what do I know- around my “backyard” malls are used as outings for moms with small kids who need some distraction while the moms get some air and of course shop, the teenagers who love to hang and buy stuff (whether they need it or not); and the senior citizens that use the malls to socialize….


  • Nancy Elias

    @ Fatemeh: Yeah, I get that but I just don’t think this advertisement is intended to be taken so seriously or influential enough to be worthy of this amount of analysis and negative coverage. No offense Ethar, I respect your opinion as always but I just happen to disagree on this particular choice of topic.

  • Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Nancy Elias – Even in the U.K, which is about 90% white, they would have still made the effort of painting a few people of colour on any similar artwork. Representation matters.

    In a country which is hugely colour-struck and where tubes of Fair and Lovely are flying off the shelves, the City Stars artwork doesn’t strike me as being very fun.

  • Saha

    These pictures are NOT cute. ugh, I hate it when women in western countries are portrayed and marketed in this way, that’s bad enough, but in Egypt?!!!! It’s totally crazy. If you don’t find them offensive, then look again and wonder why….

  • Sahar

    Nancy, everything is political. While I personally hate malls and the culture around it, I agree, these signs should reflect the people and what they can generally identify with. But it’s interesting you mention a ‘mall identity’, which is based on Western consumer culture and what malls represent.

  • Ethar

    @ Nancy: True, I believe the designer wasn’t intentionally trying to send a message across, but he did. And a lot of us do think the way you do—it’s just a cute design. But unfortunately, the message seeps into your subconscious, and you, in turn, regurgitate the message—that’s what happened with the designer!

    I’m a marketing major, and I was taught how strong advertisement campaigns can be. I agree that not everything needs to be analyzed to the bare bones, but some things do, especially when they are setting a precedent.

    I’m all for fun and creativity, but not when it’s so skewed. And of course, we’re all entitled to our opinion.

    @ Inal: You’re right. Sorry to go off on a tangent here, but let me explain a little bit:

    Most CityStars shoppers, as many have pointed out, are a certain segment of Egyptian society. 40% of Egyptians live on less that $2 a say, and the percentage of people who can afford to visit the mall often is actually only 2-4% of Egyptian society. That still translates to 3-4 million people though, which is more than the population of some countries. So there are obviously customers for the mall.

    Now, a lot of the people who come to the mall cannot afford to shop, especially young men. They can’t even afford to hang out at cafés and pay LE 10 ($2) for a cup of coffee. Usually, they spend their times hanging out in the streets. So hanging out in CityStars is seen as a good alternative. And unfortunately, large groups of young men make some women uncomfortable, since the possibility of harassment is always looming in the horizon. The idea of paying at the door a nominal fee was to discourage these groups of young men, since there is a large possibility they wouldn’t have been able to buy anything anyway.

  • Janan

    good job Ethar! i am also annoyed when I go home (Ecuador) and I see that the women in the ads are white and blond! and in fact, it also reminds me of that ad in front on Maadi Mall, for sandals. Maybe it is still there. Its a bunch of girls in tiny shorts, all white, that do not reflect at all the average Egyptian woman. Not even the average Egyptian woman in Maadi.

    what these ads say (and the reason why they need to be analyzed and written about) is: if you don’t look like this, you are inadequate… if you don’t look like this, you are not attractive (because lets face it, if you were, we’d have you on the ads, but we dont).

  • Inal

    @ Ethar-thanks

    I see; so which tack could those ad designers come up with to target those “male” prowlers to discourage their behaviour and train them to be more socially centered and less aggressive when awake and on the move… I understand targeting those who can buy to come on in… Should they not also target these “young” or “youths” as they are euphamistically called some times to either come in peace or stay home?

    I know, an age old question… With possibily no answer at the moment…

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  • Asma

    Its such a shame considering that I’ve been to Egypt in the mid heat and found it beatiful that all women were covered in hijaab wearing their Karina’s under all tops so as not to even expose their arms. Media portrayal is biased, unreaistic and down right wrong!!! on too many levels

  • saliah

    just for the record. im egyptian with natural blonde hair :) im also american… does that mean im any less then the rest of the women in my culture? i actully dye my hair black bc of the bias in detroit towards “white egyptians”.

  • dina

    it’s a real nice article .. and yes that diversity does exist sir ,, a blondy egyptian woman exists and a typical egyptian woman exists as well .. city stars is just kinda a walk 4 those who haven’t much money 2 shop “specially in phase 2 :D” .. but people who shop there must feel that advertisement is a good choice .. it’s a whole life style .. and it does exist ! .. and i like it .. however i appreciate ur way of analyzing .. but city stars isn’t the right place 4 all typical egyptian women .. it’s just as u mentioned .. one of a kind

  • Fatemeh

    @ dina: why isn’t city stars “the right place 4 all typical egyptian women”?

  • dina

    no dear .. i just meant that not every single girl in egypt can shop in there .. i don’t guess that all egyptian women can pay a 1000 pound in a “lacoste” T-shirt 4 example .. do u ?! :D
    and i guess that it wasn’t constructed from the very beginnig 4 all egyptians .. it’s not the high dam here :P .. it’s there 4 a special style of people .. don’t u think so?!?!

  • dina

    just as zara said .. “One must also admit that the mall itself does not reflect the realities of Egypt. Huge percentage of people are on breadline. ”

    so .. if that style fits some people .. let them have fun with that advertisement .. no offense .. :D

  • Amr

    A number of comments if you don’t mind:

    1. Inferiority complex is always there, Egyptian women and non Egyptian women are always not happy with how they look like, always striving towards the model look, but surprise surprise! the model look keeps changing.

    2. The AUC stereotype, of course it’s true, I studied there for a year and I can say there is no smoke without a fire.

    3. Local ads mirroring non-local ads. This is the normal first step in a nation playing catch-up with the world, imitate and then innovate, but until we can achieve what we see as superior we will not give any of our innovations any value.

    4. You say that ads have credibility, especially when coming from within the community. Adverts are to make money, education has credibility and that’s what the country is missing, once we have that ads won’t matter.

    5. And I think five is enough for now. You seem to be assuming that ads drive the trends instead of the other way around. There is definitely a feedback loop, ads tell people what they want to hear, and really they tend to be coming out of what people want. If people didn’t want these ads, they would shrivel away and die. But it’s a vicious cycle, each time round taking things to the next level.