There has been wide debate in Egypt recently on the subject of the niqab. This comes after late Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Sheikh Sayyid Tantawi said that the niqab is “tradition not religion” and that universities have the right to ban their female students from wearing anything that hides their facial features. Opposition in Egypt rose against this, especially amongst the Islamists and even the non-Islamists. There was opposition from [religiously] conservative ordinary people who recently discovered the tradition of wearing the niqab or burqa, as well as from some opponents of the regime, and even from some human right groups.
In Iran, Ahmadinejad’s government has mobilized disciplinary and corrective elements in order to impose certain standards with regards to Iranian women wearing the chador [traditional Iranian robe worn by women that also includes head-covering] and hairstyles.
In Saudi Arabia, as soon as one media feud over women ends, another one begins; over issues like the hijab, gender mixing, women driving cars, rules about women teaching mixed classes in primary school, the sale of women’s underwear, women’s employment, and more.
Whilst in Kuwait today there is talk about the feasibility of women working as police officers, after the State accepted the admission of female recruits to the police academy. Some people have talked about incidents where female police officers have been subject to harassment by young men in some shopping malls, which forced the female police officers in question to call for backup from male police officers! This is absurd, and I do not know whether to laugh or cry [upon hearing this]. This incident – as is usual in Kuwait – became a subject of political controversy and division between the trend that is against women [rights], and those that are for it. The best reaction to this incident was what educational psychology professor at Kuwait University Dr. Badr al-Shibani told “Al-Arabiya ” which is that “”the entire issue is due to the surprise and wonder that strikes every member of Gulf society in general, and Kuwaiti society in particular, when looking at a woman in military uniform.” He added that this was a one-off incident that has been exaggerated.
This is something that can be found wherever you go in the world, even in France where the debate over the niqab has reached parliament, and there has been debate over freedom and conservation, modernity and stagnation, reform and inactivity, openness and isolation, and the past and the present. Therefore you will find that women have a hand in all controversial and divisive issues.
The paradox, as some women and even some men have pointed out, is that – for multiple reasons – those who speak about women’s issues are men, whether this is those who call for openness or those who call for stricter controls, and this includes the writer of this article, as well as those men who will respond [to it] objecting to the calls for openness with regards to women!
Of course this is just a superficial examination of this issue, and there are female intellectuals and scientists in the Arab world whose political, scientific, and media contributions could eclipse the sun.
Women’s issues is not something that should be confined to specialists; this is a vast and complex subject, and one finds little debate and controversy over reform and conservation in the Arab world, except over issues involving women.
Did women’s issues entangle themselves with us, or did we find ourselves entangled in such issues? Or did we all find ourselves embroiled in the same issues at a moment of great historical confusion?