Egyptian women from different social backgrounds shared their views on the wearing of the hijab, or headscarf, with Nehal Elmeligy
After the first round of the 2012 Egyptian presidential elections, I was standing in Al-Nafoura Square in the middle-class neighbourhood of Mokattam in Cairo forming part of a “human chain” that had come together in support of president Mohamed Morsi. I felt proud to be acting as a proactive citizen.
However, to some passers-by I was just an unveiled woman holding up a sign saying, “ana mish ikhwan, bas hantekheb Morsi” (I’m not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but I’m going to vote for Morsi). A few men walked by and asked rhetorically, “how come you’re not wearing a hijab, and yet you’re voting for Morsi?” Others applauded my decision because, despite my dress code, I was still voting for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hearing these comments, I asked myself what the wearing of the hijab, or Islamic headscarf has to do with my political choices. My religious views and my opinion on the hijab did not influence my opinion on whom to vote for, but apparently I still didn’t look Muslim enough for some people. A photograph of me holding up the slogan was all over Facebook the next day. I read most of the comments, and though I wasn’t shocked by people swearing at me for my political choices, I was shocked by those saying that I must be a respectable person because in spite of my apparently being a Christian I was still going to vote for Morsi.
I started wearing the hijab when I was 13 years old simply because I believed it was the right thing to do. I then had a multi-layered battle with the hijab, but after having worn it for more than ten years I decided I wanted to go on a journey of discovering myself and so I took it off. Aside from someone meeting me after I had taken off the hijab and not recognising me, I have never felt as conscious of my uncovered head as I did during the human chain in Mokattam. I had no idea it was so important to be labelled. I had no idea it was an issue just to walk the streets of Cairo with my religious identity kept to myself.
I’m not discussing whether or not the hijab is obligatory or not for Muslim women. I am simply concerned to put forward some issues that need to be dealt with in our very troubled society. It’s really fascinating how the hijab can be used to classify women.
This is the case not only in political settings, but also in the workplace and the street. When a Four Seasons Hotel interviewer bluntly told A.H. that he would give her a job only if she took off her hijab some time ago, he gave a great example of how veiled women are sometimes defined in the professional setting in Egypt: as under-qualified and non-presentable. On the other hand, 26-year-old Sara Imam, who doesn’t wear the hijab, once asked a man in the street for directions, and, before she had even named her destination, he automatically assumed that she was Christian and started describing the way to the nearby church.
Doesn’t the social definition of what wearing or not wearing the hijab entails deprive Muslim women of their individuality? Unfortunately, many Muslim women automatically assume that you’re a “good” girl, a Christian, or even not qualified according to your dress code.
When 32-year-old A.H. put on her hijab for the first time, she felt as if she had put on a mask by covering her flowing blonde locks. The hijab conditioned her to speak, dress and behave in a certain way. Her echoing laugh was deemed “inappropriate” by friends when she was veiled. With all the social restrictions that came with the hijab, A.H. felt that putting it on automatically stripped her off her identity. She felt she had become like any other woman and had lost her individuality.
Women are obviously obliged to cover all but their face, hands and feet when they choose to wear the hijab, but are the cultural obligations that come with the hijab also necessary? Do they truely reflect religion? Why is it that veiled women have to become cultural, religious and intellectual carbon copies of each other? Human beings are intrinsically different — if they choose not to look different, should they not at least be allowed to act and think differently? Or should Muslim women who wear the hijab want all to look the same?
In an attempt to escape this apparent imperative, women who wear the hijab often try to personalise it. They sometimes follow the latest fashion trends, or they adapt the hijab according to the weather or to the event that they’re going to. It is then that another interesting type of judgement occurs. S.R., a 37-year-old English teacher who wears the hijab, hesitantly told me that she doesn’t approve of girls who wear a veil but then also wear tight clothes or sometimes even virtually see-through ones.
Ironically, S R’s views were reciprocated when a family member disregarded her hair- and neck-covering veil and loose and almost-knee length blouse and told her that she shouldn’t be wearing trousers, since this was not appropriate for her. S R said that she knew that a lot of women didn’t wear the hijab out of conviction, but she believed that there was an “appropriate” way to wear it and to behave when wearing it. She said that she was prepared to believe that it was a case of “each to her own”, but sometimes she couldn’t help but judge “inappropriately” veiled women.
Twenty-four-year-old Nesma A has always personalised her hijab and in an extreme way perhaps. She used to wear a bikini at the beach when she worked in Sharm El-Sheikh. To her, wearing the hijab is not an obligation. It simply makes her feel comfortable. She also wore a wig to a heavy-metal concert because she couldn’t imagine herself playing the keyboards with her hijab on! May be the reason why Nesma has been maneuvering herself around society’s cultural definition of wearing the veil is because of the severe way she has been judged in the past. When she was in high school, one of Nesma’s friends stopped talking to her because her father told her to do so.
There was also a rumour going round that Nesma smoked cigarettes, but when Nesma upgraded from a hijab to a khimar, a more concealing form of veil, her friend was automatically allowed to talk to her again. That’s when Nesma decided to take off the khimar, because she was appalled by how easily she had been judged according to the dress code.
In a somewhat similar way, Sara Imam says that when she took off the hijab after having worn it for eight years some people automatically assumed that she had gone through some kind of trauma and was acting out or that she had simply chosen to walk away from God. If a conservative man decided to shave off his beard, society wouldn’t necessarily assume that he had walked away from God. Does society ever re-think its role in a woman’s decision when it dares to pass judgement on unveiled ones?
Sara first started questioning aspects of Islam when she travelled abroad and found that the major justification for wearing the hijab was irrelevant. Arab societies argue that the hijab prevents women from being harassed and treated as objects, yet this happens on Egyptian streets on a daily basis. The way that women in Western countries were treated with respect regardless of what they wore made Sara doubt that wearing the hijab was fundamental to her sense of her religion.
A.H. wore the hijab because her now ex-husband asked her to do so. He prayed five times a day, had a beard and always spoke about what was “haram” and what was “halal”, or illicit and licit, in Islam in between hitting her, calling her names, and not bringing in any money. It is hypocrisies of this sort that plague our society and that played a major role in causing A.H. and Sara to take off their veils. It has nothing to do with any supposed moral or religious failings.
Creativity in our society is all too rare because individuality has long been attacked and under-appreciated. Most Egyptians have always found comfort, or were taught to always find comfort, in what was familiar and tried-and-tested. Our government has never encouraged personal interpretation of anything. We have for a very long time been forced to be intellectual and religious carbon copies of each other, and those of us who couldn’t fight their individualistic tendencies were sometimes deemed to be outcasts. The issue of a woman’s hijab is no different.