Lifting the veil of silence on hijab

Ahmed Maged
11 Min Read

CAIRO: Twenty-five-year-old Reem is mustering all her courage to make a move she had been contemplating for months. Years ago, Reem had taken on the hijab (Islamic headscarf) but now she was about to remove it once and for all.

Like many girls her age, Reem represents a growing trend in Egyptian society of women deciding to remove the hijab, despite the social and family pressure to keeping it on.

The growing phenomenon includes students and fresh graduates as well as grown middle-aged women, who may have donned the veil for over 15 years.

Dina Mohamed, 38 (not her real name) is a former translator who now works in public relations and who was still at school when she first got veiled. Her life-changing decision, however, not only led to a dramatic career change, but also to her divorce.

“I grew up wearing the veil and initially I had never questioned it, Dina told Daily News Egypt.

“My husband, who was religious and conservative at one point, strengthened my commitment to abide by the Islamic dress code by encouraging me to wear black. Because of that commitment I had to pursue a certain type of career, added Dina.

“It was a big blow to me when, by chance, I discovered that my husband played behind my back with other women and that he wasn’t the pious man he pretended to be.

“I woke up to a fallacy, a mirage, then decided to throw away the veil, wear fashionable colorful clothes and get a better-paid PR job I had always wanted.

Dina is quick to add that she still behaves within the boundaries of decency.

“I haven’t gone to the other extreme as other women who remove the veil, she says.

Laila Rashid, 45, who removed the veil early this year says that it was a very personal decision.

A few years after Laila had completed her university degree at Cairo University’s faculty of arts, she moved with her husband to Saudi Arabia where, like him, she was a teacher.

The change in her appearance and outlook became obvious to everyone who knew her when she returned from Saudi about five years later.

She became a preacher in her spare time, alongside her day job as a secondary school teacher.

When the authorities started a massive clamped-down on the Muslim Brotherhood in the past two years, Laila told her friends that she will have to giving religious lessons temporarily, but then she surprised everyone by appearing publicly without the hijab. She is still married.

A new trend?

Religious scholars believe that those who remove the veil are an insignificant minority in a society where a passion for religion is all-encompassing.

Others argue that it is unrealistic to dismiss the trend simply because it is impossible to tell whether an unveiled women used to wear the hijab in the past, or to obtain statistics on the issue.

“Even those who have taken it off once and for all prefer not to make it public knowledge, noted Dr Ghada El Khouly, assistant professor of psychiatry at Ain Shams University.

“One of the symptoms of personality disorder among some patients is the hasty and unjustified wearing and removal of the headscarf, El Khouly said. Although the hijab remains a personal decision, its social and psychological repercussions cannot be ignored.

“I believe it is the religious factor that rules supreme in matters like hijab,

Mahmoud Ashour, of the Islamic Research Center told Daily News Egypt.

“Those contesting the influence of religion and opting to refer the matter to a series of social factors could be right, but they should remember that the social aspect of hijab also emanates from religion, Ashour explained.

However, Nadra Wahdan, a sociologist at the National Planning Institute in Cairo, insists the veil is part of a cultural tradition and is bound to take a back seat as the winds of change start to overtake local culture.

Conflicts of opinion

The tug-of-war over the hijab has a been a bone of contention between the religious institution and secularists in Egypt, with the scholars at Al-Azhar, the bastion of Sunni Islam, insisting that the hijab is a religious obligation stipulated in the Holy Quran.

However, unconventional Islamic thinker Gamal El Banna, breaks from traditional views on the issue, heralding in what critics believe to be a more moderate/modern trends in Islamic thought.

El Banna argued in a highly controversial book titled “The Hijab that, in addition to the lack of proof to support the belief that the veil is a religious obligation, the headscarf is impractical and can be an obstacle for women who wish to pursue certain careers.

He also says that a woman’s hair was never seen as a temptation the way many male chauvinists believed.

A tradition that preceded the advent of Islam by 2000 years, the veil is the mark of a bygone era that is unsuited to current developments in the women’s status, El Banna says.

While Ashour believes that there is no arguing that the hijab is a religious obligation, taking it on should be left entirely to individual women’s decision and conviction.

“There is no use wearing it in your neighborhood then taking off immediately once you’re away, he stressed.

The younger generation

While sociologist Wahdan stresses the social impact that compels girls and women at home, school or the workplace to don the hijab, Somaya Ibrahim, a gender and development specialist and a women’s rights activist, points out that research on the phenomenon indicates that many young women usually start wearing it at a critical time in their lives.

Echoing the same view, El Khouly said: “In most cases I’ve seen the act of donning the veil was an emotional decision taken as a reaction to a crisis, severe stress or isolation. When the surrounding circumstances change, those girls immediately remove the veil.

The accounts of Salma Saqr, Reham Hossam El Din, Noura Kamel and Sarah Assem, four young women who chose to remove the hijab, give credence to the specialists’ theory.

The four girls, all in their 20s, have been veiled for an average of five years.

They first decided to cover their hair after listening to preacher Amr Khaled, but all admit that their decision cannot be seen in isolation from their social and family backgrounds.

Salma’s black robe and scarf, for instance, was a reaction to her family’s liberal attitude and lack of religiosity.

While Reham took the decision to protect herself from the permissiveness of her high school management that was too tolerant of matters relating sexual relations, drinking and drug addiction, Noura got veiled after a long phase of depression and desperation. The veil came as part of her decision to turn to God for consolation.

Sarah, who grew up in the US, was forced to wear as their religious father feared she and her two sisters would be swayed by Western values.But at one point they all decided to bid farewell to the hijab.

“I had a really bad experience with some overtly religious people, some of whom were morally corrupt, recounted Salma.

She added: “I began to feel that the hijab was a camouflage and not necessarily a mark of piety. Now I no longer associate faith with dress. I know many veiled girls who don’t pray and have boyfriends.

Salma adds that her family was happy to see her shed the hijab.

“I must also admit it is very difficult to be veiled amid a group of liberal people in the same way you feel out of place as an unveiled girl amid a conservative group.

Reham found out that being veiled made her life very difficult.”People judge veiled women harshly and require them to adhere to very strict and specific rules, she told Daily News Egypt.

“Some people use the veil only as a defense against harassment, she continued. “When you take it off you learn how to develop the self-confidence necessary to defend yourself.

Noura was put off when one day a preacher said that girls who didn’t wear the hijab would never get married.

“I was shocked and I started to have serious doubts about whether it was right to cover my hair, says Noura. “It seemed ridiculous that someone would assume that an unveiled woman woul
d never get married.

For Sarah it was a different matter.

“As I attended Islamic conferences regularly I realized that the hijab was more than a dress code.

“Veiled women were perceived unassuming and tended to accept being pushed to the sidelines. Many times I tried to come to the forefront to discuss things but was brushed aside because I was veiled. People assume that a muhajaba (veiled woman) should remain silent.

“Slowly I began to give up wearing long dresses then renounced the hijab completely.

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