Like Clark Kent coming out of a phone booth, I left the cDonald’s bathroom and my undercover (literally) experiment in Cairo had begun.

Toward the end of the fall semester, I decided to change my look for a day. One afternoon I went downtown and in the only public bathroom I knew of – which ironically happened to be at a nearby McDonald’s restaurant – changed into a “niqab,” a full Islamic veil. I would spend the afternoon as a veiled woman and go shopping at an outdoor market, for once not being an obvious Westerner.

Wearing a veil is nothing out of the ordinary in Cairo, as many uslim women wear the “hijab,” a scarf that covers the hair. The niqab, meanwhile, is worn by fewer women and covers the wearer’s head and face completely, except for an oblong slit at the eyes (think Zorro mask meets bridal veil.) Many women who wear the niqab also wear gloves, leaving virtually none of their skin exposed.

The niqab has caused controversy in Egypt in recent years, with its growing popularity among Egyptian women of all social classes increasingly seen by many in the secular government as a sign of a grassroots resurgence of more conservative strains of Islam. Egyptian courts have ruled that the wearing of the niqab is not specified as a duty in Islam, and therefore public institutions have a right to ban it. Many private institutions have banned the niqab as well, including the American University in Cairo.

Theological reasons for wearing the niqab in Islam are complex and numerous. The increasing popularity of the niqab and other more conservative forms of women’s dress may also reflect a backlash against the Western conceptualization of feminism and the objectification of women’s bodies in both Arabic and Western pop cultures.

The niqab can also be worn for more practical reasons. In Egypt, men vastly outnumber women in nearly every public setting, and even the most modestly dressed woman on the street is not immune to the incessant hissing, catcalls and sexual comments from men. The niqab offers a way for women to fully conceal their bodies in hopes of defraying such negative attention and keeping their sexuality hidden from the public eye.

Women who wear the niqab are neither out of touch with modern society nor always conservative when not in public. A friend of mine who frequents a gym popular with upper-class Egyptians recalled once seeing a woman come dressed in full niqab who, once in the privacy of the locker room, stripped down to Spandex shorts and a sports bra. The wearers of the niqab, I feel, are keenly aware of the intricacies and paradoxes of the women’s roles in contemporary Egyptian society, and they choose to dress as they do in order to reshape their role within that society.

This role, as I was to discover, is one that I do not occupy. As I conducted my social experiment, I couldn’t help but feel glaringly out of place despite my covered appearance. Perhaps I lack the natural aptitude for espionage found in so many of my fellow School of Foreign Service classmates but wearing the niqab, I felt false. And to make matters worse, in my paranoid mind I couldn’t help but think that everyone around me could see this.

To my surprise, I wasn’t treated very differently from how I am normally treated on the streets of Cairo. I still didn’t get a seat on the Metro, and the prices quoted to me at the market weren’t significantly less than the prices I would typically get were I unveiled and in Western dress. The catcalls from men were diminished, but my relief over that was overtaken by the onset of new issues: I could barely recognize my reflection in a shop window, and I couldn’t understand enough Arabic to adequately communicate with Egyptians at the level expected. The niqab also compromised my peripheral vision, and the long robe caused me to almost trip several times going up the stairs.

The niqab just wasn’t me. In my first semester I had gotten so used to my role as a Western student in Cairo, in filling that piece in the intricate puzzle that is Egyptian society and in all that came with it – from the hissing and comments to the assumptions that I spoke only English – that I just couldn’t pull off such a drastic role change. I only lasted three hours in the niqab before I opted to take it off and continue exploring the market as my normal, Western self.

To wear such a covering, to present oneself in such a way, takes an incredible amount of inner conviction, which I lack. And whatever sentiment is driving that conviction must be strongly and deeply felt.

My experiment with the niqab, if nothing else, allowed me to step outside myself in order to see better how those around me and I fit into Egyptian society, in all its complexity and chaos. And while I doubt I’m going to wear the niqab again anytime soon, I have a greater respect for those who do wear it.

The next day, when my American friends and I returned to the market and bought pastries from a woman dressed in a niqab, I looked at her and remembered how, if only for three hours, I’d had a glimpse into her world.

Kerry McIntosh is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. She is currently studying abroad at the American University in Cairo. She can be reached at mcintoshthehoya.com. Salamat appears every other Tuesday.

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