Fifty shades of hijab in Egypt
'The revolution has reached state television,' stated the first woman to wear a hijab on Egyptian state TV this month. The hijab phenomenon – an estimated 90 per cent of Egyptian women cover up – has gained ground for a mix of religious, socio-cultural, and political reasons. It is a more complicated equation than just religion or harassment.
A few weeks ago, Fatma Nabil, an anchor for Egypt’s state-owned TV Channel 1, became a news item herself when she appeared on air wearing the previously banned hijab covering her ears, neck, and hair. “At last the revolution has reached state television,” Nabil told the BBC.
Under Hosni Mubarak’s regime, news anchors were forbidden from wearing the hijab, commonly translated as headscarf or veil. Muhagabat, or women wearing the veil, were allowed on private channels. A recent decision by the new Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government reversed this rule, and the Minister of Information (a Brotherhood member) announced the decision just before Nabil’s show.
The media at home and abroad was immediately abuzz with what this change might mean for the public face and space of Egyptian women. Was it another sign of the ikwanization, or Brotherhoodization, of Egyptian political and media institutions? Was it emblematic of Egypt’s persisting religious and social conservatism? Or was it a democratic display of personal freedoms, a visual contrast to the repression of the previous regimes?
Surveying the major Egyptian newspapers, Nabil’s story was of particular interest as a bellwether of Brotherhood media and religious policies. In the state-owned Arabic al-Ahram, Nabil’s news was couched in the language of the revolution in support of the government. The leading Arabic independent paper, al-Masri al-Yom, surveyed Facebook and Twitter feeds, reporting the praises and fears of online readers. An article in the English-language Daily News Egypt more critically lamented the pointless politicization of the event playing on the fears and stereotypes of those involved.
The politicization of hijab is nothing new in Egypt. Under Mubarak’s ‘secular’ rule, wearing the hijab was banned for several professions, such as airplane attendees. At the same time, for other jobs—often less visible to foreign eyes—the hijab became an expected practice. These discriminatory practices created further complications, as questions about the hijab in relation to the place of Islam as the state's established religion, the rights of Coptic Christians, and assuring women’s freedoms were silenced or co-opted by other political power struggles.
I often think about this when riding the Cairo metro, where in the two women-only cars I commonly find myself one of the few with my hair uncovered. There is no imperative for me to cover my own head here; indeed, it would be considered offensive for a foreigner to 'play-act' in traditional dress. But while with my western wardrobe I inevitably stand out, on a second look the women around me are also far more diversely dressed than the hijab in the headline conveys.
In Cairo there is an array of popular hijab designs, from plain-colored cloths to bright and shiny patterns paired to an outfit. Older women often wear a kheyar, a longer cloak covering their head and chest, whether in dark grey or black, or sometimes bright colors. In recent years the Saudi niqab, or full-face black veil that leaves space only for the eyes, has also gained a greater presence.
Today an estimated 90 percent of Egyptian women cover their head. But it was not always this way. Historically, wearing a veil served as a sign of social differentiation: since the mid-20th century, only village women and those who worked as maids in the cities were expected to cover up. It was not until socio-economic, political, and ideological shifts in the 1970’s that wearing the hijab as it is now practiced began to be seen as something Egyptian. The causes are complicated, but the phenomenon was successful in part because of preachers who actively called for the hijab’s return, and the general desire among Egyptians to differentiate themselves from parts of Western culture.
At first glance these styles may appear monolithic. But speaking with Egyptian men and women about the hijab phenomenon, it is clear that women cover up for a mix of religious, socio-cultural, and political reasons. It is a more complicated equation than just religion or harassment. No doubt there are silenced women who feel forced to veil; the sight of pre-pubescent girls with their heads covered is personally difficult to reconcile. But the hijab today is many things for different Egyptians: a religious duty, a cultural custom, a suppressive act, a fashion statement, a consumer good, a polarizing practice, a political tool, a form of personal freedom - and on.
Like the array of kippot, wigs, and headscarves found in Jewish communities, these subtle diversities are quite telling to the trained eye. Indeed, a married orthodox Jewish woman who covers her hair might feel more comfortably dressed in Cairo than I do sometimes. The practices are not all that foreign to Jews.
As the newscaster Nabil’s story underscores, those who wear hijab – and what kind – are not simply conforming to an inevitable stereotype. Wearing hijab is not a decision made in a vacuum but, along with other religious practices and cultural identities, it is intimately affected by the international relations, economic changes, and national conditions at work around them. That the hijab reflects at the same time both continuity and dramatic change is testament to the complex environment of both Egypt and modern-day Islam.
In the end, Nabil's 2012 hijab headline managed to complete one historical circle: she appeared on television exactly one decade after two other female presenters were dismissed from Egyptian state TV, for deciding to wear hijab for national broadcasts.
Miriam Berger is a Cairo-based writer.