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Egypt and the Veil: An Overview | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Cairo, Asharq Al Awsat – Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni wasn’t the first to state his opinion regarding the veil, which he described as regressive, but he was the most audacious by expressing it in a public declaration. Despite the differences in the appearance of the veil and how it is distinctively worn by women in the Egyptian society, the fact remains that 80 percent of these women have made it their uniform – according to a census attributed to the information center affiliated to the Egyptian Council of Ministers. It’s no secret that the spread of the practice of veiling amongst Egyptian women over the past 20 years has established the veil as the main dress code rather than the exception, especially in the rural provinces in Egypt where the veil becomes the next and natural step for girls after the age of 12 at the most, without any persuasion from their families.

Things are not much different in the Egyptian capital of Cairo, especially in the urban ghettos where the number of women wearing the veil is on the rise due to a number of reasons. One of those reasons is because the practice of veiling is part of the social norms and traditions, in addition to the commonly reiterated view of the necessity of women concealing their bodies, according to Dr Ahmed al Magdoub, sociology professor at the National Center for Social and Criminal Studies. Add to that the economic factor whereby girls living in impoverished districts cannot keep pace with the latest fashion trends and hairstyles, thus in many cases wearing the veil provides a simple solution to counteract this inability. But there was yet another reason that prompted Sanaa, a young lady barely 20 years old who works as a sales-assistant at a clothes shop, to wear the veil. Living in Imbaba, one of Egypt’s poor districts, she explains that there are a number of mosques in the area where the imams are dedicated to addressing the subject of veiling, affirming that it is the best solution to counteract the prevailing disintegration in society – not only does it preserve the chastity of women and conceal their bodies, it also acts as a protective shield that defends thousands of youth who are unable to marry nowadays. Sanaa emphasized her total conviction with the views of these imams and consequently has been veiled for over two years out of complete conviction and for fear that should she die before wearing the hijab, she would end up in hell. In neighborhoods such as these, one cannot miss the posters on the facades of mosques and houses. Usually a picture of a veiled girl is depicted under which there are a number of phrases including, “Veiling is an Islamic duty” and “The veil protects you from the devil’s eyes”, among others of the same nature which advocates of this stance employ in their propaganda.

But if this is the case in the urban ghettos, the situation is completely different in the affluent suburbs and within the families from the various levels of the middle class, in addition to those from the upper class where the standards of education, and the economic and social levels are high. As result, it is most often the girl’s own decision to wear the hijab either because of her own personal beliefs or because she is influenced by what she reads or hears on the subject from religious scholars who are steadily and increasingly spreading on satellite channels. Despite the criticism that surrounds some fatwas issued by these prevalent religious programs on satellite channels, and the fact that they contradict one another in some cases, yet there is no dispute over the veracity and necessity of veiling, a fact that is also agreed upon amongst Islamic religious scholars, which is the reason that contributes to the popularity of the veil among the middle and uppers classes. According to Dr Mona al Farnawany, professor of sociology at the Women’s Faculty at Cairo’s Ain Shams University, “In wealthy neighborhoods, the hijab is largely related to the emergence of the phenomenon of women preachers who frequent the mosques in these areas.” Appearing over the past 10 years, female preachers from these classes who hold religious sessions in clubs and mosques in the rich districts are largely responsible for the veiling of many women – especially with the relatively recent modernization of the attire suitable for veiling in Egypt. In the past, the clothes appropriate for veiled women were outdated and did not conform with the latest fashion trends; a fact that has now changed. Add to that the lenient attitude that these female preachers adopt regarding the dress code whereby they uphold that the clothes need not be shapeless and loose in a way that obscures women’s bodies, suffice it that they cover their hair and bodies. This attitude made it possible for women to wear the latest fashions yet was still responsible for spreading the hijab among the young women within the various levels of educational forms, as compared to the past where the veil was mostly worn by mothers and grandmothers.

What added to the appeal of the veil and its popularity is the perception that veiled girls are the most suitable for marriage and more capable of bearing the responsibility of marital life. Some women even resort to wearing the veil in hopes of getting married, especially at a time when the number of spinsters has reached 9 million among young Egyptian women, according to figures by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. Shaimaa, a second-year mass communications student at Cairo University wears her hijab elegantly and in going with the stylish young fashion. She confirmed that she was veiled by her own accord since the second year of secondary school, and that she had not been subjected to any pressure from her family. She supports her claim by saying that her older sister, two years her senior, is not veiled. Shaimaa attributes her decision to the influence of the tapes she had heard in which the young and ‘modern’ preacher, Amr Khaled, discussed the hijab and its importance to the women who wear it. She added that the veil did not prevent her from getting into, and excelling, at the university of her choice where she intends to specialize in journalism. She doesn’t give a second thought to marriage, which she says some would deem as the reason behind the veiling of many, however she believes that marriage is subject to fate and that she veils because she wants to heed what Islam decrees.

The call for the rejection of hijab in Egypt, upon the consideration that it was a social legacy that women must be emancipated from and the view that it was not an Islamic ordinance, started during the reign of Muhammad Ali Pasha in 1826. That same year witnessed several scholarships whereby Egyptian students went to study in France, and yet still, Muhammed Ali’s call had neither been accepted nor supported by Muslim scholars and the intellectual elite in Egypt. At the end of the 19th Century, a few years following the British occupation in Egypt in 1882, a book entitled ‘Al Mar’ah fil Sharq’ (Women in the East) was published by Morqos Fahmi, an Egyptian Christian lawyer who was a friend of Lord Cromer, the British administrator and later consul general in Egypt. In his book, Fahmi called for the abolition of the veil considering it a veil and barrier over the mind. There were cases of books published by European writers which adopted the same vein in which they attacked Egyptian intellectuals for accepting the veil and for adopting a silent attitude regarding the matter. Published in 1899 ‘Tahrir al Mar’ah’ (The Liberation of Women) saw Qasim Amin calling for the abolition of the veil, deeming it a practice that is in no way related to the Islamic tradition. The book, although attacked by many from the general Egyptian public, was supported by a number of Egyptian thinkers and leaders, including Ahmed Lotfi al Sayed and the leader Saad Zaghloul. Among those who opposed the ideas in the book were leader Mostafa Kamel (Ataturk), who described the ‘Liberation of Women’ as degrading to women and merely promoting British ideas, and Egyptian economist Talaat Harb who issued a book in response to Qasim Amin’s which was titled ‘Tarbeyat al Mar’ah wal Hijab’ (Educating Women and the Veil). In his book, he said that the abolition of the veil and allowing women to expose themselves in this manner, are two wishes that the colonial powers have sought and supported over the years, which led him to publish another book entitled ‘al Mara’ah al Jadida’ (The New Woman) in 1900 in which he affirmed his views, citing the views of numerous scholars in the West.

The outbreak of the 1919 Revolution witnessed with it the emergence of the feminist movement in Egypt and the issue of the veil, it’s rejection and the inherent right of women to refuse to wear it was re-launched again. The starting point was at the port in Alexandria, upon the return of exiled leader Saad Zaghloul from the Seychelles whereby Nur al Huda removed the veil from her face, her colleague Ceza Nabarawi following suit. By 1923, the Egyptian Feminist Union was founded and headed by Hoda Shaarawi, who encouraged Egyptian women to take off their veils. This became the cornerstone that paved the way for the Arab Feminist Conference in 1944, which was held in Cairo and attended by a number of Arab women. Numerous female figures advocated the idea of women’s right to live without the veil and promoted the liberation of women from all constraints, especially the hijab. Prominent figures included Suheir al Qalamwi, Doria Shafiq and Amina al Saeed. When the July 1952 Revolution broke out, Egypt did not witness a surge in the number of veiled women since the revolution adopted a socialist outlook. However, this only lasted until the defeat in June 1967. Shell-shocking the nation, many hastened to interpret it as ‘divine retribution’ for the community’s lack of adherence to the Islamic teachings. Among those who adopted this stance was Sheikh Metwalli al Shaarawi who is believed to have prostrated thanking God for this defeat, as he believed it had uncovered the corruption of the Egyptian government and revealed the falsity of its claims. During this period, the growing trend towards religiosity saw the birth of a number of Islamic movements, all of which called for a return to Islam, it was one that was welcomed by the ruling regime at the time so as to divert the people’s attention away from the defeat.

With the passing of President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sadat assuming power in 1970, Egypt witnessed a new era that showed support for Islamic groups in universities and welcomed the spread of the Islamic dress code among young men and women alike. The veil and face veil (niqab) were once again reintroduced after being alienated from the Egyptian society for some time. Veiling was encouraged not only in Egypt but in the entire region, especially with the growing Soviet influence in Afghanistan. The 1980s saw a significant spread of the veil among the young Egyptian women and by the 1990s, the modern preacher phenomenon had established itself, featuring figures such as Dr Omar Abdel Kafi, Amr Khaled and Khaled al Guindi. At this stage the veil took on a different orientation after having been initially limited to the poorer classes who suffered decrepit living conditions. The more privileged classes who had never really taken religion into account began to hold lessons in which these modern preachers would come to speak in their houses and palaces, in mosques and in their private clubs attracting large crowds in their wake. With the advent of satellite, the preachers found another mouthpiece to persuade the women to wear the modern veil. This gave rise to a ‘private business’ to cater to this phenomenon whereby some shops dedicated themselves to selling attire suitable for veiling, factories started manufacturing headscarves and cassette tapes that addressed the issue of hijab and its importance and necessity for Muslim women. Matters have developed to the point where there has been a demand for establishing clubs for religiously committed individuals from the upper classes such as the one Amr Khaled is currently planning to construct with the support of several businessmen. Moreover, one of the most important markers of this period was the retirement of a substantial number of Egyptian artists who had donned the veil after listening to the religious lessons of Dr. Omar Abdel Kafi who is believed to be the catalyst behind the veiling phenomenon in the arts and cinema field.

In Egyptian universities today, we can witness the prevalence of veiled girls among the students to the point where the non-veiled minority in some universities are sometimes assumed to be Christians and non-Muslims. The deans of these universities do not address this matter except when it infringes on the public security and order of the university, an example of which is Dr Abdel Hayy al Refaei Ebied, the dean of Helwan University’s refusal to admit a student wearing the niqab into the student dormitory. His justification was that the niqab obscures the identity of its wearer, which can be the cause of unwanted incidents. He stressed that he did not oppose the veil deeming it a personal choice, however he did point out that there has been a considerable rise in hijab in Egyptian universities since the early seventies.

Ashraf, an economics and political science student at Cairo University agrees that a large number of women in his university are veiled but negates the claim that it is a result of the influence and impact of Islamic groups, as the state’s security authorities claim. He believes that these students choose to wear the veil out of personal conviction despite the fact that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which these women would presumably aspire to join after graduation, doesn’t accept the idea of the veil. He said it is rare to find a veiled woman within this sovereign ministry in Egypt. An ambassador who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity agrees with Ashraf, adding that notwithstanding the lack of explicit decisions to prevent the employment of veiled women at the Foreign Ministry that it is rare to find any women who wear the hijab working in the field, or in Egypt’s embassies worldwide. Not unlike the Foreign Ministry’s unspoken reservation about employing veiled women or allowing them to later wear the hijab, Egyptian television was explicit in its rejection of a large number of announcers on various channels who had taken on the veil. The most famous of which was the crisis between the Ministry of Information and a number of the Egyptian ‘Channel 5’ television announcers, which came to be known as ‘the crisis of the veiled announcers’. It started when five announcers who had decided to veil were banned from appearing on television and were reassigned administrative jobs at the channel. They later filed a lawsuit to reach a verdict that would enable them to resume their onscreen work while wearing the hijab.

This year, particularly during last Ramadan, the Egyptian television officials’ rejection of veiled announcers extended to actresses as well. Although this year saw the return of many retired stars who had taken on the veil but wanted to return to screens in what has been classified as ‘social’ rather than ‘religious’ drama such as Suheir al Babli who acted in the series ‘Qalb Habiba’ (Habiba’s Heart), Suheir Ramzi returned to appear in the series ‘Habib al Ruh’ (Sweetheart), while Sabrine acted in the series ‘Kashkol lekol Mowatin’ (A Notebook for Every Citizen), in addition to Hanan Turk appearing in the series ‘Awlad al Shawaree’ (Children of the Street). All the aforementioned series were banned from airing on Egyptian television, an action that drove these actresses to vent their anger in the newspapers, and prompted Suhier al Babli to say, “They accept me when I disobey God and refuse me when I abide by His rules.” Suhier Ramzi stated that Egyptian television has lost much of its credibility by virtue of ignoring the fact that the majority of Egyptian women are veiled. She added that actresses did not return for want of money, but rather to present fine art that is universally representative of veiled women.

Opinions From The American University of Cairo

Although it is estimated that approximately 30 percent of students at the American University in Cairo (AUC) are veiled, yet when we explained to the university security that we wanted to speak with the students regarding the veil they showed a deep annoyance at our request and presence. I heard one of them say, “We would have let them through [Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper] had they come under different circumstances, but now it is impossible to admit them in.” His words alluded to the recent Minister of Culture’s statement about the veil, and yet we still managed to get some opinions.

Heba is second-year student of business administration who put on the veil three years ago before entering university because she “wanted to acquire God’s good grace,” as she said. Despite her family’s objections, she felt it was her duty to fulfill. She added that most women veil because they consider it to be a fashion trend.

Nivene, a political science student has been veiled for nearly five years. She believes that most students at the university are not veiled because they lead lifestyles that are different from those of the vast majority of Egyptians. She believes that many of them have either lived with their families in foreign countries or are used to traveling abroad and thus do not accept the idea of the veil. As for the veiled students at the university, they do not face any problems and lead academic lives in much the same way as their unveiled counterparts.

Nermine, a student in fine arts is not veiled and she believes that the rise in the number of veiled women in the Egyptian society is a result in an increase in piety and awareness, in addition to the influence of religious programs, especially Amr Khaled’s. When asked why she doesn’t wear the veil she said, “I cannot take such a step now because the veil is not simply a headscarf. I must reach a state of complete piety so that my veil would be representative of my essence as well, not just an appearance.”

A second-year student in fine arts who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity said that she strongly criticizes the women who wear the veil as ‘a fashion trend’. She added, “Unfortunately, their likes have increased substantially and they have become the majority. When I see them, I feel extremely angry. I see a girl wearing the hijab, yet her clothes are tight and fitting. Not only do these girls defame the veil, they defame Islam as a whole.”