A witch-hunt for our times?
Gihan Shahine finds out if the Islamic veil is turning into a militant gesture
Click to view caption|
Clockwise from top left: veiled girls protesting the veil ban in France, a stylish woman adjusting her scarf, and women in full veil in local protests|
"The demand that [Muslim women] abandon the veil will...make some women cling more fiercely to the garment that now symbolises their resistance to oppression" -- Karen Armstrong, author of Muhammad: Prophet for our Time
"Today," says Karen Armstrong, author of Muhammad: Prophet for our Time, in the online edition of The Guardian, "the veiled Muslim woman appears to symbolise the perceived Islamic threat, as nuns once epitomised the evils of popery." Armstrong spent seven years of her girlhood in a nun's habit; she should be able to identify with that brand of suffering, whether applied to present-day Muslim women or to 17th-century nuns. "When my order was founded in the 1840's," she goes on, "not long after Catholic emancipation, people were so enraged to see nuns brazenly wearing their habits in the streets that they pelted them with rotten fruit and horse dung. Nuns had been banned from Britain since the Reformation; their return seemed to herald the resurgence of barbarism." Likewise the Muslim veil -- perceived as "a barbaric affront to hard-won values that are essential to our cultural identity: gender equality, freedom, transparency and openness".
Yet, never before the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, an occasion for many women across the Muslim world to wear hijab as a sign of solidarity with Ayatollah Khomeini and his overthrow of the Shah's regime, did hijab acquire such explicitly political overtones. According to Saadeddin Ibrahim, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and director of the Ibn Khaldoun Centre for Development Studies, "a renewed interest in the veil appeared in the 1970s, but what started as a cultural and social phenomenon, soon acquired a political significance with the emergence of the Islamic revolution in Iran." Still, "the cards were so mixed in the Western mentality which knew little about Islam, especially with the emergence of Islamic militancy in the 1990s in Egypt, which then spread out to the US and Europe. The Western mentality could hardly differentiate among different terms: Islam, hijab, terrorism, violence and niqab (the face veil), which remained so ambiguous and alien to the Western political and social terminology..."
The panic thus created -- exacerbated by the media -- peaked in an unprecedented way after the 9/11 attacks. Playing up the link between a largely innocuous form of religious modesty on the one hand and militant politics on the other, the incumbent war on terror soon gave way to discriminatory measures against veiled women all across the Western world. In 2004, France-a country with a Muslim population of six million- introduced jurisdiction banning the wearing of hijab in government institutions, including schools, notwithstanding the resulting uproar all across the Islamic world and the fact that such a ban is in fact a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, upon which secular society is based; other European countries have since followed suit, and others are still debating whether to do so or not. In the Netherlands the issue was central to the electoral race; in Britain, former foreign secretary Jack Straw generated much discontent when, dismissing hijab as "a visible statement of separation and difference", he asked the women with whom he dealt to consider removing it.
Commenting on the issue, Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama deplored the fact that the spread of hijab in Europe has been misinterpreted as a manifestation of political Islam and used as a pretext to exclude Muslims, with the message that the veil is a personal choice falling on deaf ears: "it has been turned... into a question of dogma reducing Islam's noble tenets to a set of rigid principles that force Muslims to live in exclusion." But hijab is also a social trend, with some 20-25 million Muslim immigrants in Europe increasingly subject to the influence of a "parallel flood of Islamic preachers, some with extreme thoughts", as Ibrahim says, "whereas the first generation of immigrants was busy establishing a life and a career in the West, the second generation found itself in a situation where they are treated as second class citizens, and accordingly, started to look back for their roots." Nor are the more outward manifestations of Salama's "rigid principles" ever far from (identity) politics, hijab being a statement against the oppression of Muslims in Palestine and Iraq, say, or the injustice of US and EU policy in the Muslim world; it has even been suggested that 9/11 raised the number of veiled women in the West.
Armstrong explains, "the unfolding tragedy of the Middle East has convinced some that the West is bent on the destruction of Islam." She warned that "the demand that [Muslim women] abandon the veil will exacerbate these fears, and make some women cling more fiercely to the garment that now symbolises their resistance to oppression" -- as was the case when Reza Shah Pahlavi banned hijab in 1936, when many women refused to leave the house for months, and others risked being beaten and having the veil forcibly removed on the streets. Straw's comments, she suggests, can "only make matters worse" at a time when Muslims feel "embattled" and when "the bodies of women often symbolise the beleaguered community".
The same is true within Muslim countries like Egypt, where the spread of hijab and niqab among over 80 per cent of the female population -- the outcome of social and economic as much as religious or political factors -- is seen as a worrying sign of "Islamisation" linked to political Islam. The Muslim Brothers secured 20 per cent of the seats in parliament in last year's elections, despite, even, being banned. Likewise in Palestine and Lebanon, respectively: the spread of Islamic dress is associated with the rise of Hizbullah and Hamas. Indeed it is an argument frequently made by secularists like Nabil Abdel-Fattah, analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, who sees the spread of hijab as playing into the hands of Islamists trying to "to Islamise all domains of life: private, public, political, cultural, educational... with the object of making political headway... and to marginalise Marxist and liberal trends."
For his part, the Islamically-oriented Al-Ahram columnist Fahmy Howeidy, denies any such link. "Secularists are irritated by the spread of the veil," he told Al-Ahram Weekly, "as well as other public manifestation of the faith -- and so they try to stigmatise hijab by linking it to the Brotherhood and political Islam."
But, whether or not it is driven by such an aim, unease with the veil in official and secular spheres has occasionally resulted in discriminatory practices, whether at the workplace or on campus. A few weeks ago a student was denied access to Helwan University campus for wearing niqab ; another met the same treatment at AUC. A student was expelled from a preparatory school in Alexandria for wearing hijab ; TV anchors are routinely transferred to administrative positions once they choose to don the hijab. All this despite the fact that, in Egypt, Islamic Sharia is the main source for legislation, as a result of which there never has been a law against hijab. On state television this year, no less than five dramas starring veiled actresses were banned.
Yet, for Ibrahim, such "regulatory decisions are, perhaps, discriminatory, but not oppressive. Every place in the world has its own regulations which should be respected. The government is oppressive in many other ways but not in this direction since those veiled women who faced discrimination could take their cases to court and actually received rulings in their favour."
The conflict between secularism and Islamic conservatism recently reached a new peak when Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni was quoted criticising the spread of the veil as a sign of social regress. The minister's anti- hijab remarks were attacked by members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in parliament, who were in turn countered by secular intellectuals in solidarity with the minister against what they described as an attempt on the part of the Brotherhood to establish "an Islamic state". The minister had already caused a grassroots uproar, however, which would have undermined his portfolio had he not retracted his statements in time.
Once again the incident showed how the issue of the veil, arguably a personal choice, is deployed in the political battle between Islamists and secularists. Salama says that "such indulgence in hackneyed issues is the real regress -- especially while Rome burns", a reference to the far more urgent tragedies with which the Muslim world is confronted: "Islam cannot be reduced to the question of hijab."
Still, the issue was overblown further by the media, that debated whether hijab is obligatory -- a somewhat pointless exercise in the light of the orthodox men of religion's near consensus that it is, a point speedily made by Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, who quoted verses from the Quran that explicitly prescribe khimar (the long headscarf) and modesty in public, displaying not their beauty but rather only "what is apparent of it". There has always been disagreement regarding the precise interpretation of this phrase: most clerics believe it is a reference to the face and hands, while others argue that it means the surface of a garment -- hence the increasingly widespread belief in the necessity of niqab.
Theological controversies aside, however, it is interesting to note that the exact same argument took Egypt by storm in 1882, when Lord Cromer, the British administrator who ruled through the principal of Veiled Protectorate, that is via the khedives, remarked that the veil was a "fatal obstacle" in the way of the country's development -- prompting secular lawyer Morqos Fahmy (problematically, a Copt) to publish a book in which he described hijab as a "mind veil".
By 1899 Qasim Amin had published his landmark Tahrir Al-Maraah (The Liberation of Woman), in which he called for the removal of the face cover, arguing -- contentiously for many clerics -- that it was not in keeping with the tenets of the faith. He further promoted his arguably Westernising project in Al-Maraah Al-Jadidah (The New Woman, 1900), paving the way for Hoda Shaarawi to publicly remove her veil in the wake of the 1919 Revolution -- the first Egyptian woman to do so, followed by Siza El-Nabarawi -- and establishing the first feminist association calling for uncovering the face and eventually the hair in 1924.
The feminist project is no longer taken for granted however. According to Safinaz Kazem, a journalist and critic, "Qasim Amin's project was not to liberate but to Westernise women." She referred to Amin's description of Egyptian women as "dirty -- a far cry from their good- looking, clear counterparts in the West". The "so called enlightenment project", she said, of which feminism was part, was the work of coterie of intellectuals "drawn away from their Islamic roots to Western culture, the products of a 70- year-old occupation"; they should no longer be a reference point, she argues, "now that we have a better knowledge of our religion".
Nor was Egypt the only target of such "uprooting", Kazem says: Turkey was forcibly secularised by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. "But, as history taught us, Western trends are always countered by resistance and while secularism was sweeping through three major Islamic countries [Egypt, Turkey and Iran], the Muslim Brotherhood was born under the leadership of Hassan El-Banna and a parallel Muslim Sisters was created under the leadership of Zeinab El-Ghazali, who promoted the liberation of women, but from an Islamic perspective."
As she is quick to add, Kazem herself was one of those swept away by the Western tide, as it were, which lasted for almost half a century, during which "Western costumes symbolised high class and the veil was frowned on as baladi "(a derogatory term for "local").
It wasn't until the 1970s that interest in hijab re-emerged, though few of even those women who practised religion wore it. Links have been conjectured between this tendency, the Iranian Revolution on the one hand and the fact that numerous Egyptians found employment in the Arabian Gulf countries on the other.
Neither factor could in itself explain the motivation of the first university student to wear hijab, who was the subject of a case study by Ibrahim: "That girl came from the country side and she wore the veil as the only possible outfit that would spare her any form of competition with her wealthier colleagues from Cairo, and also as a means of protection while she was by herself away from home. It was more of an economic and cultural issue."
For Kazem, however, hijab is an issue of identity, of "going back to Islamic roots", as she puts it: "there might be other reasons why many women now are wearing the veil, but there is no doubt the spread of the Islamic costume is a sign of religiosity." As the first journalist to wear the veil back in the 1970s, Kazem remembers that, "we suddenly realised that we were robbed of our Islamic culture and started to look for roots. I was like an occupied plot of land and the day I took up the veil [in 1972] was the day of my liberation."
Although a liberal himself, Ibrahim supports those who take the veil so long as they are active and productive; only they, he says, are "the real granddaughters of Hoda Shaarawi, whose main call was for women to practise their free will".