A little more than 10 years passed between my first visit to Cairo and this one, my second. I remembered Cairo as it was, with its noisy streets, the lively downtown area with its European-style architecture, the crowding in the market area, the high sidewalks, the mosques, the Coptic churches, the restaurants and the cafes. One change was particularly visible and could not be ignored: In Cairo of the 1980s, one could find quite a few women walking downtown with not only their heads uncovered, but also in short sleeves. During the 1990s, sleeves got longer and head coverings multiplied, and proliferated even more as time went on.
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Today, it seems that most women in Egypt wear the traditional head covering, the hijab. That is nothing unusual: religion is growing stronger in Arab society as a whole, and in Egyptian society in particular. Every traveler who visited Cairo from time to time during these years could easily see the change in the Egyptian women’s dress habits and the spread of the hijab and even of the niqab, the veil that covers all or part of the face.
Like most foreign tourists who visit Muslim Arab countries but do not live there, I, too, looked at this phenomenon with sadness, and deciphered it with the simple explanation of increasing hardship, increased religious observance and the return of women to their traditional role in patriarchal society. For me, the hijab was a symbol of women’s inferior status in Egyptian society, and a symbol of women’s subjugation and oppression in general.
But occasionally, I saw some things that did not correspond to my theory. For example, the store windows of the Al-Motahajiba fashion chain (the name means “covered” in Arabic) displayed a large selection of veils and head coverings in various colors alongside an impressive collection of women’s accessories that included sexy baby dolls, black leather underwear with silver studs, fishnet stockings attached to garters and even a hijab made of transparent fabric attached to a nightgown that was transparent as well. When I asked myself how these items could go together, I thought: In the privacy of her own home, for her husband’s eyes only, a woman may wear sexy, seductive garments, and it is even desirable that she do so. In the public space, in any case, Egyptian society still prefers that women cover themselves and see (sometimes through netting only), but not be seen in any way.
Despite what I thought, at the same time I got a chance to see Egyptian teenage girls, wearing head coverings, going out with their boyfriends after school in a boat on the Nile River, dancing with them and for them to music that came from the tape recorder they had brought along. I also saw them in their workplaces wearing jeans and clingy tops, heavily made up, wearing high heels and a hijab. And many times I saw veiled women walking on the streets with their parents, and their mothers were bare-headed and wore their hair unbound.
It was only when I stood in line at the entrance to a well-known Cairo nightclub, with a young woman wearing a hijab in front of me, that I let that dissonance trickle into my mind and disturb my perception. “You can’t go into the club like that,” the guard at the entrance said to the young woman in the hijab. “This is a harama” (a place that serves alcohol), “and it doesn’t make sense that you should come here wearing a hijab.” The young woman did not hesitate for a moment. She removed the pin that held her hijab in place, shook her hair free and knotted the fabric behind her neck, as if it were a fashionable head covering or even a bandana to keep her hair out of her face. The fact that religious law forbade her to be in that nightclub at all did not seem to disrupt her plans for the evening. She went in and met her friends inside. Some of them were wearing head coverings, while others were not. Some of them drank alcohol while others did not. Men and women danced together there until the wee hours of the morning.
During my next visits, I had the chance to get to know some feminists who wore the hijab. It appears that for many women, the hijab has become not only an article of clothing identified with religious tendencies of whatever sort, but also, and mainly, one that defines identity. And many times, that identity is an oppositional one: local rather than global, “eastern” rather than “western.” In other words, they are saying: Do you, the women in the West, want to expose your bodies? We actually want to cover ours! Are your fashions dictated by America? Ours come from Saudi Arabia! But more than that, many women have made the hijab into a symbol of Islamic feminism, turning it into a source of empowerment.
Hijab Fashion, a monthly fashion magazine for Muslim women, was established in 2004. It is published in London and distributed throughout the Arab world. Like many women’s magazines in the world, Hijab Fashion has columns about relationships, family, health and beauty care, and recipes. It also has articles about careers and essays that occasionally present feminist opinions that would do radical Western feminist movements proud. But the magazine’s most interesting feature is the wide variety of styles of head coverings and dress appropriate for Muslim women that it shows. For example, it covers the new trend of caftans from Morocco, the new line of women’s abayas from the Persian Gulf states, or the last word in hijabs from Saudi Arabia. And there are lots of hijabs — in lots of colors, styles and for a variety of purposes.
Another event that contributes a great deal to the field is Hijab Fashion Week, an annual event that takes place in London. At this event, men and women fashion bloogers, stylists and designers of “modest fashion” from all over the world meet and show their new creations, not only to sell their designs to the various clothing chains, but also to make the hijab fashionable and legitimate, and try to change the negative opinion of it that is prevalent throughout the Western world, which sees it as a symbol of women’s subjugation and oppression.
Interestingly, in Hijab Fashion magazine and also in fashion shows that feature the hijab and traditional clothing styles, as well as on the websites and blogs dedicated to the topic, the clothes are not always presented as a way of conforming to Islamic law and the religious life (though such websites and blogs do exist). Much of the fabric used for the head coverings comes in bold, and sometimes even loud, colors, and a good deal of the clothing designs that accompany the hijabs include tight-fitting trousers, clingy blouses or dresses that accentuate the contours of the female body. Both these things go entirely against Muslim religious law, according to which women must wear garments that conceal the shape of their bodies and avoid colors that draw too much attention.
So what does all this mean? That the hijab is actually something fun and that all Muslim women are happy as can be that their status is so good? No. Certainly not for the most part. Many young women in Egypt talk about the social pressure that leads them to cover their heads, mainly because of the looks they get from men and women in their family, neighborhood, school or workplace. Some even develop skin infections where the fabric rubs their faces. Many men make marriage to a woman conditional upon her covering her head after the wedding, and many religious parents raise their daughters to wear the hijab without giving them any choice in the matter.
But just as there are various styles of head coverings and different ways to tie the hijab, every hijab has its own story. In Yousry Nasrallah’s 2009 film, “Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story,” there is an independent woman character whose husband makes their marriage conditional upon her covering her head, and she refuses. The film has another character, a saleswoman in a high-end perfume shop, who describes herself as “cut in two”: she wears no head covering at work, but wears the hijab at home. A third character, a conservative woman, wears the hijab but drinks beer — and alcohol consumption is forbidden in Islam.