1950s And 1960s Egypt: When Arab Modernity Allowed Bikinis

Published September 23, 2014
Updated July 31, 2019

1960s Egypt was a time when the modern Arab identity was being questioned and defined. Have a look at it in photos.

If you even so much as glance at a newspaper these days, you’ll see that Egypt is very much in the throes of an identity crisis. This is nothing new, and as these images suggest, much of these differing viewpoints on what a modern Egypt “should” look like stems from social and political thought in the mid 20th century

1960s Egypt Color
Women and men embrace the summer heat at a beach in 1964. Source: Egyptian Streets

Egypt Boat
Sunbathers near the Port of Alexandria, 1955. Source: Foreign Policy

Women Students In Egypt
Skirts and schooling for women in 1966 Aswan.

1960s Egypt Nasser
Gamal Abdel Nasser shaped the face of Egypt from 1956 to 1970. A critical time on national and international fronts, his social justice-oriented ambitions did not come entirely democratically. He won his second term by legally forbidding others to run against him. Source: Shmoop

1960s Egypt Tahrir Square
Tahrir Square in the 1960s Source: Egyptian Streets

Egypt Magazine 1960s
A woman reading an Egyptian magazine in the 1950s. Source: Egyptian Streets

Egypt Vespa
Vespa uses Cairo--not Rome-- as the scenic backdrop for a 1950 advertisement. Source: Egyptian Streets

Jewish Dept. Store
An advertisement for a Jewish department store, Benzion, in Egyptian publications. Source: Egyptian Streets

1960s Egypt Bikinis
Young women hanging out at Sidi Bishr beach in 1959. Source: Foreign Policy

Swim Suits Egypt
Agami Beach, the Egyptian Saint-Tropez, in 1956. Source: Foreign Policy

Egypt Sunglasses

1960s Egypt Beach
Friends gather at Alexandria's Sidi Bishr beach in 1959. Source: Foreign Policy

Students in the quad at Cairo University, 1960. At this point in time Egyptian education was considered by many to be one of the best in the world. Source: Egyptian Streets

Bra Ads
A 1960 ad for soap features a woman in her underwear. Source: Egyptian Streets

Bishr Beach
A couple in front of the Sidi Bishr beach cabanas in 1959. Source: Foreign Policy

1960s Egypt Beauty Pageant
A 1956 beauty competition. Source: Egyptian Streets

1960s Egypt Marlboro
Marlboro makes its way to Egypt in the 1960s; smoking is still a huge. Source: Egyptian Streets

1960s Egypt Police Woman
A woman directs traffic in the 1960s. Source: Egyptian Streets

1960s Egypt Female Soldier
A woman arming herself in 1956. During the 1950s when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal and joined together in resistance against the Israeli-French-British attack, it wasn't uncommon for women to volunteer to fight. Unless filling administrative spots, women today cannot assume such roles. Source: Egyptian Streets

1960s Egypt Women
Women engage in political rallies in Assiut: not a single one is wearing a veil or conservative dress. Source: Egyptian Streets

1960s Egypt Coca Cola
Egyptian star Magda appears in a 1952 Coca-Cola ad. Source: Egyptian Streets

1960s Egypt Family
The Alexandria waterfront at Montaza Palace, 1956. Source: Foreign Policy

1960s Egypt Bathing Suits
Taken in 1959, this photo captures Alexandria at its cosmopolitan height. Six languages were regularly spoken in Egypt's second largest city, and Arabs, Sephardic Jews and Europeans would intermingle peacefully, sporting whatever clothing they pleased. Much of this influence changed upon the arrival of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who made it his presidential ambition to shirk Egypt of its colonial past and cultivate an "authentic" Arab identity--even if it meant repressing those whose understanding of "Arabness" included a very public display of one's religion. Today, Alexandria is one of the most conservative cities in Egypt. Source: Foreign Policy

Wanting to part ways with imperialist powers and craft what he deemed to be a united Arab identity, Gamal Abdel Nasser plotted Egypt's political path through the international turmoils that defined 1950s and 60s.

To put it quite lightly, Nasser was a point of major annoyance to Western powers who sought Egypt's help during the Cold War, and to religious Egyptians whom Nasser pushed to the social margins in his secularization of the state, he was an object of absolute scorn. But to millions of others who saw benefits from charismatic Nasser's social justice-oriented ambitions and socialist, secular reforms, his vision was the new Arab modernity.

Decades later, fundamentalists pushed to the sidelines re-emerged, resonating with many Egyptians frustrated with the status of the Egyptian state. The Muslim Brotherhood and the now-ousted president Morsi have picked up on Nasser's winning blend of populism and dictatorial tendencies and are using this period of political and economic flux as an opportunity to cast a new vision for what they believe is the "true" modern Egyptian identity. What that actually looks like remains to be seen, but if these pictures are to prove anything it is that people can, for better or worse, change.

If you liked this post, be sure to check out our gallery of Afghanistan in the 1960s.