There are much deeper issues to the wearing of the hijab or niqab than either the religious aspect or the personal choice of clothing aspects. I believe a much deeper issue that needs airing in this context is the unconscious and immediate reaction inherent in Egyptian society about the face veil and the headscarf. I need to stress here that this is my personal opinion that I have formed from living in Upper Egypt over the years. They are the issue of “worthiness”, “self-esteem”, “sense of belonging”, “sense of standing out and being unique”, “harrassment”, “body image” etc. etc.
Whether they admit to it or not, on the subject of niqab, hijab, there is a subconscious judgement that takes place in everyone’s mind as they see or meet an Egyptian lady (apart from those directly opposed to these items of clothing that is). Whether aware of it or not most people judge and even make the remark “she is a good lady” when speak about someone wearing the niqab. Conversely, whether they voice it or not there is the opposite instant 5-second judgement on meeting a lady not wearing the niqab and a more subconscious condemning of a muslim lady not wearing even the headscarf. This is a judgement I have observed in women, girls, men and boys of all ages in Upper Egypt.
Here we encounter the issues of belonging to society/individual approval/worthiness, or standing out as being unique/different/independent/free depending on the wearer’s mentality and these issues apply to both those wearing and not wearing the niqab, funnily enough!
There is a superior air that accompanies those wearing the niqab, abeya, gloves etc. – a slightly “holier than thou” atmosphere which I find more prevalent among the younger wearers of the niqab. But I allow for it in my own mind when I come across it by excusing it as a growning-up phase they are going through! So what is the automatic sub-conscious reaction of a person confronted by a person with superior attitude? To form a defensive, belittling judgement of that person naturally.
Then there is the issue of sexual harassment in the streets of Egypt – ah now, this is a thorny subject isn’t it! Observations have shown that this harassment in the form of whistles, comments, suggestive remarks, attempts to engage in conversation, touching inappropriately and downright groping happens to all ages of women here whether wearing the full covering niqab, headscarf or not. This is a psychological problem (yes, it is a PROBLEM) in the minds of Egyptian men which needs to be tackled.
Sexual harassment in the streets of Egypt have made me wish on many, many occasions that I could wear the niqab and cover my entire body when venturing forth! Why? Because sexual harassment is not something I have ever had to endure anywhere else in the world. Comments from perfect strangers on my skin, hair, body not to mention the appreciative scanning from head to toe with the eyes and the suggestive curl of the lip! At my age I find this especially insulting as neither my skin, hair or body would get me a second look anywhere else in the world!
I have an English friend who never goes out in Luxor now without wearing the full niqab and abaya, right down to the gloves – she says she finds it so liberating to go shopping without having to go through the usual rubbishy chat-up lines. So, why don’t I? Because I wouldn’t get away with it! I would be quickly recognised by my eyes and accent. In which case I think I would simply become an object of ridicule!
But now I have to ask the question – “how many wear the full covering outfit to feel protected from the stares of men?” No, this is not a contradiction of the statement made in the above paragraph. They still attract the comments etc. but at least have the pleasure of knowing the men cannot see their bodies – bit like the person wearing reflective sunglassess thinking nobody can see him! But it does afford a degree of feeling invisible.
“How many wear the full outfit because of poor body image? I believe these are also reasons for wearing the cover ups but are not admitted to. Don’t we all have body issues? Too fat, too skinny, etc. etc.?
Now for the headscarf – hijab .lets leave the religious issue aside. The fact is the headscarf and the many variations on style with which it is worn here is really elegant! It adds to the attractiveness of every single girl and woman I have ever seen wearing it. I tried it myself at home (alone) and can’t figure out why it does nothing at all for me. In fact it makes me look worse than I normally look! Hints of poor body image coming through here??? I am quite sure if it made me look attractive I would wear it also – if only to protect my hair from sun damage.
But when it comes to religion I think the wearing of the headscarf does not make a lot of sense…..if I am to understand the reasoning behind the wearing of the headscarf and I am open to correction on this point. As I understand it the headscarf is to hide the “charms” in this case hair, of the wearer from everyone except the lady’s husband – am I right? It is supposed to be a form of modesty? If so, then what about the rest of the body?
In all the years I have lived here there is one thing that has not changed about young Egyptian fashion – no matter what size or shape of the lady, the jeans, pants, skirt are tight around the bum, the blouses and tops (multi-layered look) are body-hugging. This body clothing which leaves little or nothing to the imagination does not go with the religious or demure views symbolised by the headscarf. As for make-up, far from hiding the charms of the lovely young ladies – make up is an essential worn by everyone (even by so many ladies of the niqab).
So, whatever about the niqab, abaya and full cover up clothing – I can’t understand the excitement and controversy the wearing of the headscarf arouses. I have just been watching a programme on the TV here about a model called Yassmin Mohsen who has set up a project to train failed veiled Egyptian models. It is a good business idea to start a model agency for headscarf-wearing girls but I don’t think she will pull it off using the religious angle as portrayed by the programme.
One thing she was teaching the girls was how to NOT WALK the criss-cross of the legs walk which results in the swaying of the hips – how to walk straight and not smile too much – but the walk came across to me more as a “I am not a person here, I am detached, I am simply a walking clothes-horse to show you these clothes – someone’s gotta do the job so I am stepping up to do it….. you have a right to see veiled Egyptian girls modelling (she was wearing headscarf not niqab so I don’t know why she kept calling it ‘veiled’).
At the end they interviewed some men on the subject of veiled models – one man said “they are wearing tight clothing so don’t blame us for looking!” a remark I think prevalent among the male population anywhere. The second remark came from a man who said “It’s a contradiction – she’s just a model showing off tight fitting clothing while wearing a headscarf. Modelling does not go with the idea of the hijab so why pretend it does?”
So, is the headscarf a fashion accessory, a symbol or what? Which brings us back to the wearing of clothes at all? It seems muslim ladies have to make the same decision ladies worldwide have to make on an individual basis (which they should be free to change as they evolve, change and grow as Nadia in the article above did). The decision is “Am I dressing to cover up “modestly” and keep the prying eyes off my body – whether wearing niqab or not? If so then, ladies, I am afraid the tight clothing has to go if you are not wearing the niqab! Or “Am I dressing up to make the most of my body, to look good in the street and to show off my wonderful body – then time to admit the headscarf is a fashion accessory just as it is in western society for non-muslims. (Apart from the unique style denoting “I am a muslim”)
Back to Nadia and her personal story – I compliment her on her courage to write honestly and personally – and when it comes to blogging I’m a bit like you, Nadia – once I sit down to write the words just come pouring out – the sign of a true writer a guest once told me! Compliments to the both of us! You might be able to clarify some of my muddled thinking on the above subject. I also believe we all have the right to change our minds, change our viewpoints as we grow. I have many things I hold firm opinions on but have come to realise it is important to listen to other and especially opposing viewpoints to my own – and sometimes I am swayed or changed, sometimes I am not – but listening always expands my mind, my experience and my tolerance. But mostly, listening continues to convince me we are all basically the same.