New Controversy Rages around the Hijab in Egypt

( Dr.Ali Gomaa’s comments with English subtitles)

The debate around Islamic headscarves (Hijab) and an Islamic dress code for women is still raging in Egypt. Sheikh Ali Gomaa, an internationally known Islamist jurist and Egypt’s ex-Grand Mufti (top interpreter of religious edicts issued by Muslim clerics), recently joined the debate with some very surprising and alarming comments. In his own television program, Sheikh Gomaa not only reaffirmed that headscarves (Hijab) are mandatory in Islam; he labeled any woman who disputes this interpretation as an infidel. His comments have raised fears among non-Islamist Egyptians that supposedly moderate mainstream scholars are now giving their blessing to new institutionalized Islamism.

In Egypt, the dress code for women has been controversial for nearly 100 years. The controversy started in 1919, when many women took off their veils as a gesture of support for Egypt’s freedom from British occupation. Political Islamist groups, however, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have always campaigned for a strict Islamic dress code that includes covering the head as a minimum requirement for Muslim women. The group’s supporters resorted to social coercion to spread their message, using fear tactics (such as threats of punishment in the afterlife) to ensure adherence to the dress code. Salafists have opted for an even blunter approach, with a sharper dose of social coercion against women in their social circles.

Until recently, and even during Islamist Morsi’s tenure, leading mainstream religious scholars have chosen their words carefully to avoid being perceived as harshly critical of non-Hijabi women. These scholars have been happy to appear on TV with non-Hijabi women to discuss various religious topics. Many observers interpreted this attitude as a sign of a moderate approach toward women’s rights. Islamists, on the other hand, have viewed this as hypocritical and a sign of appeasing the ruling elite and its faux liberalism image.

While Sheikh Gomaa has no official position, his views have always reflected the country’s religious trends. He is known for expressing some progressive views on democracy, female genital mutilation, and others issues. Nonetheless, his recent comments on the hijab are troubling for many reasons. Sheikh Gomaa has now divided non-Hijabi women into two groups, sinners and infidels. Sinners are those who acknowledge Hijab as a must, but fail to adopt it. Infidels, in his view, are those who openly challenge the concept of mandatory Hijab.

Interestingly, Sheikh Gomaa added a caveat stating that only a judge can issue a verdict of blasphemy or apostasy against defiant non-Hijabi women. As an ex-Mufti, Sheikh Gomaa is fully aware that Egypt’s judiciary is not composed of religious scholars, and that civil judges are in no position to judge religious matters. Therefore, inserting this issue into the subtle mix of religious and civil matters in the judiciary is risky and could lead to endless cases of injustice and encroachment on civil rights.

Additionally, his views could lead to a culture of bullying against non-Hijabi women and possibly create legal traps for any outspoken women. Sheikh Gomaa’s insistence that defiant non-Hijabi women could face court cases will potentially open the gates of hell for Muslim women who dare to challenge traditional views. These women will find themselves in a defensive position, having to somehow prove to a judge they are indeed “good Muslims.”

Lastly, while it is hard to know what the real motives behind Sheikh Gomaa’s recent harsh views are, they seem to be part of a larger campaign by mainstream Al-Azhar-affiliated scholars to monopolize the interpretation of religious scripts and block any efforts by outsiders to advocate any views deemed too liberal. An example is the recent legal case against researcher Islam Beheiry

Few days after Sheikh Gomaa’s comments, mysterious pro-headscarf graffiti has appeared at the Cairo University metro station. Also worth mentioning, in a 2014 Egyptian television program, a non-Hijabi woman was forced to wear the Hijab in order to join in a debate on women rights and Islam with two scholars ____ the same two scholars who debated researcher Islam Beheiry.

Those who advocate monopolizing religious studies under the umbrella of Al-Azhar claim it can prevent the chaos of extremist fatwas (religious edicts) issued by radical clerics who glamorize radicalism and extremists groups. That may indeed sound logical and plausible, particularly as groups such as Isis are waging a barbaric wave of terror throughout the Middle East. However, Al-Azhar scholars, including Sheikh Gomaa, appear to be adopting a strict approach to controversial issues, including women’s dress code, possibly as a way to appeal to conservative crowds that have drifted away from Al-Azhar towards political Islam.

However, if theology is to be considered a science, then like all other sciences, it should be open to constant scrutiny and review. Islamic scholars like Sheikh Gomaa, however, seem to want it both ways. On the one hand, Islamic scholars resist outside scrutiny of their own views, while on the other hand, they are reluctant to revise what has been mostly regressive male-dominant religious scholars who persistently downgrade Muslim women to second-class citizen status.

The current debate around headscarves reflects a larger struggle within Egypt regarding the meaning of moderate Islam. Mainstream scholars seem to advocate the concept of tolerating sinners like non-Hijabi women as a sign of moderate Islam. Others reject it and, instead, seek a reformed interpretation of Islamic texts that will allow the inclusion of many liberal Muslims, including non-Hijabi women, within a wider, more diverse Islamic umbrella.

Many fondly remember moderate Al-Azhar scholars such as Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut. In fact, Sheikh Al-Bakoury and the legendary Quran reciter, Shaykh Abul Einein Sheisha, were both happy to be photographed with their non-Hijabi wives and daughters. Egyptian women and youth are now asking, what went wrong? Why are current scholars now more intolerant?


Egyptian women should not be forced to wear the scarves just to please some Islamic scholars. Islam in Egypt has always been a tolerant, inclusive faith. Institutionalizing regressive Islamism within state pillars is not the way forward for Egypt. Egypt did not oust the Muslim Brotherhood, only to get a far worse model of Islamism.

About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
This entry was posted in Best Read, Diary of Aak, Egypt, Islam and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to New Controversy Rages around the Hijab in Egypt

  1. mert says:

    I don’t know the politics around headscarf in Egypt, so what I say might seem insensitive. I see how Sheikh Gomaa’s view may come off harsh to many muslim women, but it is quite difficult to call it as extreme. On the contrary, it is quite the mainstream position. According to the orthodoxy one may choose not to implement what is written in the Quran (remains muslim but sins), but cannot challenge it and remain muslim. This is even the case when you challenge a single word (even a letter) from the book. Of course, one can always choose not to follow the mainstream position and accept it alright to challenge the book.


    • nervana111 says:

      There is NOTHING in the Quran about an “earthly” punishment for non-Hijabi or for their position regarding rejection if Hijab. Absolutely Nothing!


      • mert says:

        Well, I respect your stance on this issue and I would support to the end your right to defend this. But what you say is a minority position within Islam at the most (not even that), Sheikh Gomaa’s stance is the mainstream view, and if we should be truthful to the facts it shouldn’t be named as extreme position. God knows, your stance might become the mainstream view in the future, but it is not currently.

        I agree that there is no “earthly” punishment for not wearing hijab, but the rejection of it (or more truly rejection of anything from the Quran) could have according to the mainstream view. And that is what Sheikh Gomaa says. We may not like it, but that is the islamic orthodoxy.


  2. nervana111 says:

    You are elevating some humans in an era of regression to a level they do not deserve. Al-Baquori and Al-Hosari were also classified as Islamic orthodoxy. Historiacally, women of Andalucia and Baghdad’s Haroun Rashid had more rebealing garments. I judge Islam with its texts not on what a bunch of men says. If that is minority, then I am so proud to be part of this a minority .


  3. Pre Islamic women and men wore headscarves. Pre Islamic and Islamic women who were prostitutes right up to just 150 years ago in Egypt wore nothing covering the breasts to denote their trade. see: An Account of The Manners and Customs of The Modern Egyptians by Edward William Lane (who lived in Egypt at the time). Therefore non prostitutes already wore a headscarf in the hot dusty climate of the region. The Quran states that believing women should cover their breasts with a scarf and that scarf would be the one they already had on their heads. There is nothing in the Quran telling women to cover their hair. It is actually telling the new Muslim women not to be mistaken for prostitutes by covering the breasts. It’s simple clear common sense knowing the dress of those times.


  4. osm321 says:

    The traditional understanding of being an ‘infidel’ requires to reject not just a mainstream understanding of Islamic edict but to reject it without proof to back it up from Islamic sources. Otherwise it is just similar to the typical Takfiri practices that we see from extreme Salafists. (Unfortunately the influence of Salafism is prevalent in many of the supposedly non-salafist scholars of our time ). There is strong evidence from Quran that Hijab is not fard. So a woman can be loyal to Islam while believing hijab is not mandatory.

    We also need to have a discussion / revision of understanding on the issue being an infidel in modern society


    • nervana111 says:

      Many thanks for this insightful comment.
      I fully agree with you. We need serious duscussions on various aspects of Islam and modernity. Sadly, we only now have bickering and convulsive arguments.


      • rosalindawijks says:

        Yes, in the West the debate is stuck between Islamophobes and conservative Muslims, and in many Muslim majority countries, the debate is stuck between Islamists and secular nationalist dictators, and in Egypt it’s the Islamists vs. the military.

        VERY frustrating at times.


    • rosalindawijks says:

      ” There is strong evidence from Quran that Hijab is not fard. So a woman can be loyal to Islam while believing hijab is not mandatory.”

      True, but I disagree with you on one thing: Anyone can doubt anything about Islam. As long as one believes that there is but one God and Muhammad is His/Her/Its prophet, then that person is a Muslim. period.


  5. rosalindawijks says:

    Sheikh Ali Gomaa. The same idiot that compared Sisi with Musa/Moses (peace be upon him).


  6. rosalindawijks says:

    “3abeet” (stupid/idiot) and “gahla” (ignorant). Wow, those are really sophisticated terms for a man who claims to be a scholar. The only 3abeet is mr. Gomaa himself.


  7. rosalindawijks says:

    Oh yes, and the authoritarian claim that only people (He means men, ofcourse!) who studied in the classical Sunni institutes know something about Islam, which is ofcourse nonsense!

    What about all those Islamic Feminists who hold PhDs in Islamic sciences of Western universities! Like Amina Wadud (she also studied at Azhar university actually) , Kecia Ali, Ayesha Chaudhry, Aisha Hidayatullah, Leila Ahmed, Asma Barlas?

    Just a cheap way of dismissing anyone who doesn’t agree with HIS conservative, patriarchal *interpretation* of Islam.


  8. rosalindawijks says:

    I have read all the verses in the Quran concering women’s dress in Dutch, English and Arabic, and can assure anyone that wearing a headscarf isn’t a Quranic obligation for Muslim women. In the aforemented verses, the words “head” and “hair” aren’t even mentioned. Anyone who claims otherwise, is lying. Plain and simple.


  9. nedhamson says:

    Reblogged this on Ned Hamson's Second Line View of the News and commented:
    Add this to the list of how stupid and insipid men can be.


  10. rosalindawijks says:

    On the other hand, let’s also not forget the discrimination against hijabis: Muslim women wearing hijab, the vast majority of Egyptian women, weren’t allowed on tv. There are also restaurants and clubs that don’t allow hijabis in. (This happened to a Dutch convert friend who studied Arabic in Cairo)

    Just like brown, dark and black people, who also form the overwhelming majority of Egyptians. (Fair/light skinned people are a minority, since Egyptians ARE people of colour)

    So yes, sadly enough, Egyptian society is rampantly racist, sexist and classist – The three isms our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, fought against all his life.

    And I agree with you that all women, hijabis or not, deserve respect and acceptance. Period.


  11. Qays says:

    As salamu alaikum. Thanks for the clearly and passionately written article. I must agree with “mert”‘s comment above.The Mufti is a jurist and the position he articulated is the standard and orthodox position in Sunni Jurisprudence and theology on this and similar matters. Like all legal systems Sunni Law consists of various schools each with a corpus of texts that are studied and interpreted. All four Sunni legal schools are in agreement on what the Sheikh mentioned. That is not my opinion it is a fact attested to by the literature (from basic theological texts like Tahawi’s “Aqida” to more advanced legal super commentaries like Ibn Abidin’s “Hashiya”). The way he articulated it may have been controversial but what he said is not.


    • nervana111 says:

      Thank you for your comment.
      I am afraid I disagree. There is No earthly punushment for non-Hijabi Muslim women. None. Therefore, referring them to judges to evaluate their Islam is disgusting and non-acceptable.


      • rosalindawijks says:

        Full agreement. It’s the inquisition in disguise. It’s only up to God to decide who is a Muslim or a good Muslim. Period.


    • Qays says:

      It’s my pleasure to be part of such a discussion. I’m not sure what part of my comment you disagree with. I only wanted to point out that the principle the Mufti appealed to is an agreed upon one – that non-compliance with an undisputed obligation/prohibition is sinful while rejecting it in principle is apostasy and the latter requires due process. That is what is in our books of Theology and Jurisprudence and I don’t think the fact that it is in those books is subject to agreement or disagreement. You may be aware of this already but it is useful to keep in mind that the reason that Theological principle is there is because of groups that claimed that ANY sin committed by a Muslim results in apostasy while other groups said that Muslims are free to sin without moral consequence provided they have faith. Sunni scholars therefore had to clarify that both those extremes are incorrect. The question here is not one of punishment but one of faith in and integrity to core Islamic teachings. To use another example, if I lie (lying is without doubt prohibited – though there is no worldly punishment for it) then that does not make me a non-Muslim unless I believe that lying is good and permitted in Islam. If my conduct or speech causes others to think that I do believe lying is permitted then I *could* be taken before a judge who would then do exactly what the Mufti described in relation to not covering the ‘awra. The same applies to any undisputed sin/obligation and not those about which there is legal difference of opinion. I just think it’s important that such facts related to context and rationale not get lost in such discussions. Barak Allahu fikum.


  12. rosalindawijks says:

    But I would take it even further: I don’t believe in a heavenly punishment for non-hijabi Muslim women, either, since I don’t believe in the obligation of hijab and don’t think it’s “punishable” not to wear it.


  13. And the unbelievable arrogance of this man to takfir women whose choices he doesn’t agree with. He, as a scholar, should know takfir is haram. Inspired by the great Amina Wadud, I declare the gender jihad. For real.


  14. rosalindawijks says:

    “That is what is in our books of Theology and Jurisprudence and I don’t think the fact that it is in those books is subject to agreement or disagreement.”

    That it is written in those books, doesn’t make it true or right. (I might react less briefly next week inshallah)


  15. rosalindawijks says:

    ” The same applies to any undisputed sin/obligation and not those about which there is legal difference of opinion.”

    It IS disputed! It simply isn’t true that “all Muslims agree on it” or “all scholars agree on it”. Many Muslims don’t consider the hijab as an obligation, and many scholars, like for instance the eminent Amina Wadud, don’t consider it an obligation either. (And don’t start with claiming that she isn’t a real scholar, since she holds a PhD in Islamic studies and studied at 5 universities, including Al Azhar)

    And to be honest, I consider it problematic on many levels to only let the Sunni Ashari ulema from the Middle Ages/Classical period define Islam.

    Good as their intentions might have been, their interpretations weren’t objective and din’t fall out of the sky, but were heavily influenced by a patriarchal, androcentric worldview and society.

    So their interpretation isn’t “Islam” per se, but just the cisgendered, androcentric, patriarchal, elite freeborn version of Islam. Many of their stances were and are problematic for women, who form the half of the mmah, LGBTQ people, who form at least 10% of the Ummah, and so forth.

    Many of their views are at odds with modern human rights and international law standards; like for instance allowing slavery, the rape of enslaved women, domestic violence, marital rape, torture, capital punishment and so on.

    Remember that slavery is now forbidden ine very country on earth, and most modern Muslims would never accept slavery, but the ulema from the classical period did. If the institution of slavery, which was an integral part of the Islam of the jurists, is know prohibited and not accepted, the same could – and should go- for many other institutions. Get the picture?


  16. alfred zambisi says:

    Gomaa deeply misunderstands this issue. The usefulness yet unstated true purpose of the hijab is to keep fleas discreetly under wraps. 😉


  17. rosalindawijks says:

    He is the same Schreibtischmörder that gave the Egyptian police and intelligence forces a license to kill by claiming that “the blood of the Muslim Brotherhood is halal”, which means that he says it’s permitted by God to murder them.

    He also equated Egypts current dictator, Sisi (!), with Moses (peace be upon him) and the minister of interior affairs with Moses’ brother Aron.


  18. sam says:

    thanks nervana

    i cant understand how some one educated like you believe in a religion such as Islam?


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