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:

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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.

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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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