Initially published in Egypt’s Ahram
A call by Egyptian journalist Cherif Choubachy for veiled Muslim women to take off their headscarves (hijab) has stirred widespread controversy in Egypt. Choubachy has also proposed a “take off the veil” rally to be held at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. While some have welcomed Choubachy’s proposal, others vehemently oppose the idea. A senior official at Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Sunni Islamic institution rejected the call, stressing that the head-cover is a religious must for female Muslims once they reach puberty.Heated discussions spread to talk shows, and social media, with pro- and anti-veil trading accusations and counter-accusations.
The responses to Choubachy’s proposal have exposed the shallow, mediocre approach to contentious, sensitive topics, and the inability of society to tackle different viewpoints in a constructive manner.
The debate about Islamic dress code for women is not new. On a personal level, as for any Egyptian female, this issue has been a regular facet of my life since childhood. Family friends, neighbors, and even complete strangers preached about the “mandatory” headscarf, even before I reached puberty.
At university, I was one of a small group of females who did not wear a veil. Dressing modestly in a non-revealing garment, avoiding tight jeans and make-up was not enough to protect me from the avalanche of criticism. Almost daily, I heard comments like, “Go and cover that hair,” “That wild hair will put you in hell.” Islamists used to offer non-veiled students books about the “right” dress code that were filled with threats of punishment in the afterlife for staying un-veiled.
I decided, however, that a dress code should not be allowed to shape my identity or the depth of my religiosity, and opted not to wear a headscarf. Social coercion is not pretty, but it is still manageable in Egypt; if the woman is willing to persevere and ignore the noise.
The wearing of an Islamic veil has fluctuated in popularity throughout the last few decades. In the seventies and eighties a strict Islamic dress code started to sweep society, with some popular female celebrities joining the wave and declaring their “repentance” for their past without the veil. Moreover, covering the face as well as the head (niqab) and long headscarves covering the chest (jilbab), mostly in dark plain colours started to also make a strong appearance in Egypt.
Later in the nineties, creativity dominated the scene with a flurry of various headscarves that started to appeal to younger generations.
During and after the January 2011 revolution, Egyptian women have displayed a wide variety of dress codes during protests, from no veil at all, to the full niqab.
This plurality in display was a healthy sign of a society embracing freedom and change.
In fact, the last few years of upheaval in Egypt have exposed the flawed line of demarcation between religion and politics in Egypt. Not all religiously conservative women have backed the Muslim Brotherhood and president Morsi.
In 2013, many women in strict Islamic dress joined anti-Morsi protests to the shock and dismay of the Islamists. On the other hand, the pro-Morsi camp was keen to demonstrate that some non-veiled women, albeit only a few, were among their supporters.
Nearly two years later, Egypt is still tense and polarised. The Muslim Brotherhood may have vanished from the political scene, but ordinary Egyptians are still feeling uneasy about their faith, which they care about dearly, and its place in public life. This is precisely why the bickering about headscarves is not helpful.
In Egypt, headscarves are not imposed by the state, therefore, the call for a rally to remove the scarves, even if it is well intentioned and with valid reasons, is misguided. President El-Sisi’s wife and daughters (who have only appeared in public during his inauguration) are religiously conservative and wear headscarves. Calls to remove the headscarves will only trigger resentment and elicit a stubborn response. In fact, it will provide Islamists with the victimhood environment that they desperately need to re-kindle their social popularity among conservative Egyptians.
With this said, it is also time for Egypt’s Muslim clerics to stop treating the way a woman dresses as if it is a fulcrum of the faith. It is not. This misplaced priority is rather alarming. Moreover, Islam has always been a faith with diverse views and interpretations of sacred text. The current totalitarian approach to any religious controversy needs to stop. Diversity and tolerance are the two essential ingredients for a healthy society.
In sum, it is about time to respect the basic right of a woman to choose her own manner of dress without angry bickering and petty debates. Women with or without headscarves should be accepted and respected in Egypt.