With less than a few days to go before Eid El-Fitr, Rana was sifting through Instagram to pick a new essdal (a loose outfit for prayers that covers the hair and body) for the early morning prayers of the first day of the feast.
Having had the booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, Rana is happy to resume “a favourite tradition” that has been suspended for two years due to the pandemic. For this occasion, she decided to invest a few hundred pounds in a new essdal.
Rana, unveiled, is used to buying an essdal once every few years. For praying at home, she uses cotton essdals. “Nothing fancy at all, just to serve the purpose,” she said.
It was in 2000 that Rana started attending Quran recitation, and she decided it was not good enough to wear a veil and long outfit to perform her five prayers at home. It was around that time, she said, that many charity groups started to make simple essdals to sell them for meagre profit. “My first essdal cost EGP 55 – a simple baby blue and white linen essdal,” she said.
Today, these simple essdals cost EGP 250, at least. Their prices kept going up, especially after the floatation of the pound in November 2016.
Maha El-Ezaby, a founding volunteer at Al-Zahraa Charity Association, said that essdal prices went up at least 10 times since her charity started to make them in the early 1990s.
“But the price of the material has been increasing significantly,” she said. Moreover, she added, it is essential for the charity to secure “a reasonable profit margin” that goes partially to the women who make the essdals to have a stable income.
“Our purpose is to help women who provide for their families; and with the increasing demand on essdals we have been expanding steadily,” El-Ezaby said.
The run-up to the holy month of Ramadan is ultimately a high season for the essdals market in Cairo. According to El-Ezaby, even women who are veiled like to have a special essdal to wear for the extended evening prayers of Ramadan (Taraweeh).
“This was not exactly in fashion in the 1990s, but it certainly became fashionable in the early 2000s,” El-Ezaby explained. Consequently, she added, charities that make essdals for sale started a new line of production. “We make the simple inexpensive essdal that women and girls increasingly like to wear at home, especially in Ramadan, and we make another line for the more upscale essdals that women wear at mosques,” she said.
Every year, before the advent of Ramadan and ahead of Eid El-Fitr or Eid El-Adha, many charities organise an open day to sell essdals.
According to El-Ezaby, this is one of the most successful activities of the majority of charities. However, she added, since 2016, production has decreased given the declining shopping capacity of the larger part of the middle class.
“There is still demand, for sure, especially this year as people have returned to pray at mosques after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, but the question is about prices,” she said.
The question of prices is certainly key to the business of Lina and Fadwa Mawhab, who started a small business in 2010 to sell upscale prayer outfits, including essdals.
“The idea was to take the essdal to a place of elegance and flair, because I thought there was no reason at all why a woman should be wearing a dull outfit to perform prayers, either in Ramadan or Eid,” Lina said.
As it turned out, there was a big market for Lina's production. “Many women were waiting for this, because they think that Ramadan and Eid are occasions to dress up for,” she said.
The success of the colourful and elegantly tailored silk essdals of Lina and Fadwa prompted veiled women to enquire about the possibility of having some dresses made by the same workshops. Again, the two sisters thought it was worth it.
“In Egypt it has always been a challenge to make nice outfits for veiled women that are both compatible with the Islamic traditions of a proper dress code and pleasant at the same time,” Lina said.
She added that she has always found it unfair for veiled women to be forced to work around the average casual skirts, trousers, shirts, and dresses to create a reasonable outfit that meets their requirements. With oversize outfits becoming more and more in fashion, Lina said, she decided to go ahead and produce a few items.
Once the collection went online, it instantly proved a big success. “It was not just veiled women who put in their orders, but women who are not veiled also got interested; I think the oversize outfits are appealing to students, working women, and others,” she said.
According to Lina, there is room for oversize casual wear to double as outfits for veiled women.
The fact that Lina and Fadwa’s outfits are custom-made allows for adjustments of length and design to match the measures and preferences of the orders. This flexibility allows adjusting some simple, loose dresses by adding a cap to become essdals or change the material for the outfit to turn into a beach dress, Lina said.