90% of Egyptian Women are Veiled
Eman S. Morsi - 15/06/2008
If asked why they wear it, almost all Egyptian women who do will answer "because God has demanded that of us". Due to many sociopolitical and economic reasons Egyptians' understanding of religion changed drastically ever since the early 70s from a more moral and spiritual understanding to one that is focused on appearances and rituals under the guise of being true to one's identity, i.e. being and looking Muslim. This gave rise to the appearance of more and more veiled women and bearded men. However, while in the 70s, 80s and early 90s the women who wore the veil did so as a personal choice, ever since the late 90s and especially with the turn of the 21st century the veil has become an item worn by many as a natural consequence of becoming a woman more than out of belief in it.
For many women, like Shaima' Saleh, a 23 year old secretary, why they wear the veil was never something they thought about or questioned. After a few moments of surprised silence at the question she has never thought about she said, "I don't know, I was 13, one day my mom told me to wear it so I just wore it like everybody else, never thought about it really". For most 20 year old middle and lower middle class women in today's Egypt, the veil is not something one chooses to wear or not to wear. It has become a tradition, a custom. Everyone wears it, modesty and good reputation rest on it and so it is taken for granted that any good girl will be wearing it by the time she is in college or at most by the time she graduates.
Of course exceptions of liberal families still exist in the middle class, however, girls of such families who choose not to wear it put up with a lot of harassment and preaching in the street and at work or university. According to Heba Ismail, a 25 year old unveiled assistant manager, throughout the four years she spent in college in one of the country's main public universities she was harassed non-stop by girls who told her about the punishment that lies in the afterlife if she doesn't wear it and who questioned her faith.
Things are not that different with the upper middle and upper classes in Egypt, though the higher up the social scale the later girls would wear it and supposedly the more freedom they will have in whether to wear it or not. As for the westernized segment of the Egyptian upper class the veil is rarely ever considered.
Since the veil has become so widespread it has been transformed into a fashion item with many different sizes and methods of wearing it around the head and is worn along with the latest in western fashion, such as tight jeans and shirts. Many magazines, like Hijab , show girls the latest in veil styles and colors and young women and girls spend as much money on new veils as they do on other cloth items. This fact led many to believe that another reason why so many young women are wearing the veil is because of how it has become a trendy fashion item.
To distance themselves from this "neutralized" veil, women who believe that it is their duty as good Muslims to cover up are donning wider, larger head covers that go down all the way to the elbows or the knees and are worn over loose fitting clothes while a growing number are now wearing the Iraqi Izdal/ shador . The face cover (known in Egypt as Niqab ) is also beginning to be adopted by more and more women who follow more radical interpretations of the Quran and Hadith.
While the Egyptian public is now generally pro-veiling the state is not. Unlike private satellite channels, state owned TV is much less tolerant towards the veil since the image the government is trying to convey is that of a secular and modern state versus what it considers a veiled hence "backward" and "uncivilized" reality. This intolerance has led to many lawsuits being filed against the state run TV and government officials, like the minister of culture, for banning veiled women from appearing on television or for voicing anti-veil sentiments.
What will be the place of the veil in Egyptian society in the coming years? Opinions again differ. While many think that the girls who wore the veil out of social or peer pressure or to follow fashion will take it off in the years to come, others believe that the growing religious extremism will make more and more women wear the more strict loose-fitting veils and eventually the full face cover.
(photo: Zainab Magdy)