• Reports
  • January 2, 2007
  • 7 minutes read

All Hail the Veil?

The way Farouk Hosni was attacked for his comments on the veil, you would think Cairenes were uniformly in favor of the hijab. We hit the capital’s streets for an informal survey of liberals and conservatives alike.

VIEWERS TUNED in to Al-Mehwar on November 16 were shocked to hear Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni’s explosive anti-veil remarks. His comments describing the hijab as a step backward for the nation were soon plastered in newspapers across the Arab world. Muslim women, a majority of whom are now wearing the veil, were not the only ones angered by the minister’s statements: Hosni received sharp criticism from members of Parliament, the average citizen and Arabs in general.

Although voicing his own personal opinion, and not representing those of the ministry, some insisted that Hosni resign, and Parliament prepared to censure him before PA Speaker Fathi Sorour ultimately defused the situation.

Egyptian women first started taking the veil in larger numbers in the 1970s as the nation began turning more religious. While some see it as a religious symbol in today’s society, others feel that it is no more than a cultural phenomenon. Unofficially discouraged by the state, which is hesitant to validate such a blunt symbol of the Islamist movement, the veil is slowly splitting the corporate world into companies that refuse to hire veiled women and others who only employ those who have taken the hijab. High-profile actresses who once traded on their sexuality, including Mona Zaki, have taken the veil, and retired screen icon Soheir Ramzy made a stir by returning to work (still veiled, of course) this past Ramadan in a lead role. At the other end of the scale, Beano’s, the local café chain, asks its waitresses to take off their veils before working and to put them back on after their shifts are over.

So, is it a fard (religious obligation) or is a trend? We hit the streets to take the pulse of the capital city. Excerpts:

I personally think that covering your hair is a cultural phenomenon. —Reham Romero, 19, Mohandiseen. A senior at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Romero took off the veil and is unsure whether it is something for her or not.

The hijab is a cultural phenomena and not a religious one. It is not something that was written in the Qur’an. It existed long before Islam came to be. It existed in the older civilizations — during Christianity and Judaism — and it was there when Islam was founded. Veiling was not something Islam asked women to do, but instead it was what was generally worn during that time. There are verses in the Qur’an that say a woman must be decent and cover her cleavage. The rest of the verses are to be interpreted freely, however people want. Some people believe that the verses say that the niqab, the full face veil, is required, while others just the regular veil. The veil, though, is not an obligation and not in our religion. —Gamal El-Banna, 85, Islamist writer, Downtown Cairo

I like to think they [women who are veiled] do it out of belief, but a lot of people are doing it now because it is a cultural fad. They’re thinking, ‘Other people are doing it, why shouldn’t I?’ —Nora Eltahawy, 20, senior at AUC, Maadi

[The veil is an obligation, but] it is not the only one. Focusing on the veil has led girls to wear it without understanding the rules and manner in which it must be done. [Unfortunately], we are a society that judges people by their looks. Most women do it because they believe in it, but there is a significant number that put it on only as a mere act to show that they are innocent and pious. —Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, 23, Islamist activist and business consultant, Nasr City

Women who are veiled are viewed as doing so for many reasons, including that they don’t have nice enough hair, they were forced to, to get married or to be treated as a respected member of the community. —Aisha Hassanein, 21, Alexandria. A masters student at the London School of Economics, Hassanein was once veiled herself, but decided to take it off.

The veil started as a religious symbol, but not everybody who wears the veil now [does so for religious] reason[s]. A lot of people don’t comply with how to dress with the veil. You obviously can’t smoke shisha while wearing the veil or hold your boyfriend’s hand. You can’t pick and choose what you want. It’s an overall package and responsibility. Not everyone who wears the veil does so because they believe in the veil and that it is an obligation. —Salah Zaki, 56, medical director at the International Medical Center, New Cairo

We teach our kids about the hijab starting when they go to secondary school. We teach them so that she knows about her religion and what is asked of her. As a Muslim country, we should be required to wear the hijab because it is an obligation. Even though the majority of the people today who wear the hijab don’t dress appropriately, but this is a step forward, that a woman understands that she needs to wear it and may God guide her to the correct path. —Hanafi Mahmoud, 46, taxi driver, Imbaba

I wear the veil because it is God’s commandment. It says so in the Qur’an. Whether I first wanted to or not isn’t the point. I love it now, but I took it because it was a fard. —Samia El-Sheikh, 33, marketing and PR executive, Mohandiseen

Whether or not the veil is fard I cannot tell you, but from what I see, it is. From a cultural point of view, I don’t see it as oppression but as a choice. Whoever wants to wear the veil will wear it and whoever doesn’t won’t. It’s all these factors: religion, culture and fashion [that pushes a woman to veil]. [For the lower classes, they] maintain respect by wearing the veil. It’s a way of introducing the youth to the religion. —Erika Wakid, 19, a Christian student, Heliopolis et