Day 38: Concluding Thoughts (Pt. 3): About This Hijab Business

Ed note: Sorry for the long delay. I wrote this on my last night in Cairo, right before the plane took off. Then I got back to Belgium and basically slept for four days (more than I slept for 40 nights in Cairo… ah, I miss it). Finally, I edited this before publishing (you’re welcome, believe me), and we’re back to the races – I’m planning one or two more “post-mortem” posts still.

Trying to demystify Egyptian womens’ use of head coverings has been a constant, sort of background project while I’ve been here. Whenever I’ve had the chance to speak at length with an Egyptian Muslim woman, I’ve pried as much as possible into her decision to wear it or not. The subject doesn’t seem to be a particularly delicate one – indeed, most ladies I’ve spoken with have been eager to explain their choice and how they view the practice in their lives and in their faith.

But as common as it is in Egypt – I’d guess roughly 80-90% of the women I’ve seen here wear it in some form – and as open as they are about it, I still don’t have a firm grasp on What It Means To Muslim Egyptian Women In General, or what it means precisely to the rest of Egyptian society.

Rather, it seems that there are as many reasons for wearing the hijab as there are women who do.

Covered women are definitely on the rise in Egypt. This was apparent as soon as I landed, though I’d never been to Egypt before – my sister travelled to Cairo in the late 1990s and had told me not to worry about bringing a scarf to wrap myself in, as “none of the younger women wear them, it’s totally Western – you’ll look stupid.” But no, times have clearly changed since Janie’s last visit – Egyptian hijab-wearing has been on a steady incline in recent years, along with general religious sentiment in what is seen as a response to the country’s deteriorating political and economic situation.

A group of middle-class teenage girls I approached on the Cairo subway once, looking like Christmas ornaments with their heads all knotted up in various bright, eye-catching embroidered scarves, said they’d been wearing theirs since puberty, around when all their friends started wrapping up. None considered themselves particularly devout (few prayed five times daily, some had boyfriends) though they were all Muslim. Their hijabs – paired with fetching skirts and dresses over pants, the occasional pair of tight jeans and long-sleeved, high-necked shirts for all – appeared largely an unexamined social-fashion choice, a matter of doing what all their girlfriends were doing. Pious symbolism aside, these lasses – while remaining wholly within the bounds of common Cairene etiquette – were not going out of their way to make themselves look plain.

Indeed, I saw some seriously sexy hijabs while in Cairo (I meant to spend an afternoon photographing these in my last days there, but sadly, Broken Camera made this impossible). There appeared no end to the different ways Egyptian women tied their scarves – some in tight circles around their heads, knotted at the neck like Rana:

Some pinned theirs traditionally (with real pins – ack!) like my friend on the felucca here, looking like what my McHijab is meant to simulate:

Some boasted a bouffant bulge in the back, hinting at some elaborate hairstyle for the voluminous locks that lay underneath, as in this internet image:

My personal favorite, as displayed by many of Cairo’s younger set (the girls on the subway all used this style), was when they’d wrap their heads loosely in several gauzy scarves, so the effect was a sort of fluffy, floating halo of fabric around the face, like on the model below – very fetching, made all the ladies wearing it look like pretty little snowflakes:


I saw very few women who let any hair hang out the fronts of their hijabs, as is more common in other parts of the Muslim world:

Hah! Once on the subway, I was approached by a very concerned young woman, who wanted to point out to me that part of my braid was sticking out the back of my hijab. I tucked it away and thanked her, and she nodded, glad to have saved me the shame of having let some hair escape its thin blue lid.

One of the first women I spoke to was middle-aged, and told me that she had gone half her life without wearing the hijab. She told me this was because in her 20s and 30s she worked in a foreign company, with Westerners, so that – even though she had always wanted to cover up – she thought it would make her coworkers uncomfortable. Now that she works in the Cairo stock exchange, where all the women wear the hijab, she can wear it constantly without feeling strange.

Then there is the lovely Rana – the Lebanese divorcee (in her forties, I finally discovered, though she could easily pass for 25 with her hair loose, 30 tops in her hijab) who lives alone in Cairo. Rana has been covering her head for the last eight years – when I asked her outright about this decision, I got the unsatisfying answer that “I don’t know, just I came to start thinking it’s just better.” But as Rana became a close friend over my time in Egypt, I slowly started to understand more of why it seems “just better.” For one thing, living alone in a Mohandeseen apartment (a decent neighborhood, neither very affluent nor very poor, fairly traditional and not swarming with foreigners), Rana says her neighbors already assume she’s some kind of loose woman, and treat her with suspicion and disdain. On top of this, she must deal with Egyptians’ stereotypes about Lebanese people (she says she is instantly recognizable in Cairo as a foreigner, thanks to her complexion and her accent) – namely, that they are all extremely wealthy, and that the women are temptresses. With all this, the hijab is an instantaneous way that Rana can try to signal that, though alone and foreign, she is Not That Kind of Girl. In general, the head covering is heavy with this Nice Girl symbolism, and seems just as important for how it makes Rana feel as how it makes other people feel about her. A week ago, she was very upset, having briefly gone back to the scoundrel boyfriend that she had broken up with only a few days earlier. I received a distraught text-message, threatening that “I think I will just take off hijab, I feel so bad.” We met for juice later that evening – she was a little calmed down, and still wearing her head covering. I asked her what removing her hijab had to do with being angry at herself. She told me that after she’d succumbed to loneliness and had met up with her scuzzy ex-boyfriend, she felt “so dirty and bad that I should just be very bad and not wear hijab.” Basically, since she’d already disrespected herself and done something she felt guilty for (I’m telling you, this guy is a shmu-uck), she might as well go for broke and abandon her outward marker of respectability. I talked her down and told her she’s still a good person and not to dwell on the past and to love herself and blah blah blah, and that and the shisha and mango juice cheered her up. She’s still wearing her hijab, which I’m glad about because for Rana, the black and grey fabric seem to represent her very esteem for herself.

But while wearing the hijab might make life a little smoother for Rana on the streets and with her neighbors, it’s not without its sacrifices. She’s desperate to find work that will sustain her better than her part-time secretarial duties. I suggested that, with her excellent English and refined manners, she should see about working for one of Cairo’s luxury hotels or business centers. But she told me she’d already looked into this and that establishments catering to foreigners in Cairo are loathe to employ Egyptian women in hijab, as – again – they feel it will make the clientele uncomfortable. That was a pretty frustrating conversation – to consider Rana’s choice of either being ostracized from the Egyptian society she lives in, or being excluded from the expat community which she seems otherwise well-poised to enjoy and profit from.

As you may know, I myself went and purchased an easy-on, easy-off head covering – my “McHijab”– and wore it frequently in Egypt. Sometimes it was because I knew I’d be going into a mosque, sometimes because I was in a more traditional part of Cairo and wanted to assimilate as much as possible, sometimes when I was walking alone at night in seedier areas and wanted to give off every impression of piety, and sometimes just because it was fun.  Obviously my wearing it had nothing to do with religion, or any speculation on how one god or another would prefer to have me cover my body. I’ll tell you this much for free, though – “hijab” or “no hijab” has no effect on how much male harassment I encounter on Cairo’s streets. Really, hair-or-no-hair-visible is a total crapshoot as far as the boys are concerned (though I’m certain that if I went around in short sleeves and skirts, I would notice a difference). They stare, hiss, sometimes murmur or call loving or lascivious odes in English or Arabic, and every now and then follow me down the street, regardless of whether or not I’m folded into my light-blue wrapper. If anything, wearing the thing makes me more attractive to Egyptian men, because – as the sandwich-counter-girl at my Arabic school advised me – it makes me seem like more plausible “marriage-material.”  My one consolation to discovering that there is no escape, no matter how hot and uncomfortable I make myself, is that Egyptian women – both covered and non – experience the exact same thing. Somehow it it’s comforting to know that this undignified treatment, which no woman in the world enjoys as far as I know, extends to all ladies young enough to hold a mouthful of their own teeth in Cairo, and not just Western girls.

No, the main social benefit I found to wearing my hijab was rather in how it made the women treat me. I can’t say enough good things about Cairene women – they were all courteous, generous and helpful to me no matter where I was or what I was wearing. But even so I found them to be still warmer and more welcoming when I was wearing the head covering. If I was wearing it on the subway, women would invariably sit near me and strike up conversations, ask to borrow a tissue, inquire about how I was enjoying Egypt, etc. On the street, they seemed much more inclined to stop and help me with directions or other information, and would often insist on walking me to my destination if it was after dark and they were headed in the same direction. Most of the time, if we spoke at any sort of length, I admitted that I wasn’t Muslim, but that didn’t lessen their friendliness at all – they were quick to accept that I was wearing the hijab for the simple reason that everyone else was, and they took this both as a logical move for a Western girl in Cairo and as a decorous show of respect. In short, the hijab was the quickest and best way to locate and activate the Global Sisterhood’s Cairo branch. For that reason alone, it was invaluable.

My Arabic teacher (and Top Quality Lady, whose blog is a must-read for anyone curious about the prescient insights of a scholarly young Muslim Egyptian woman) is the only gal I spoke with who has recently removed her hijab. The decision, she said, was based not on any inconvenience or oppression she felt wearing the thing – indeed, she’s adamant that it was always her choice to do so, and that it never bothered her in the least – but rather on her own studies and her contention that bare-headedness doesn’t make her any less of a Believer. Ironically, she told me that she has actually experienced less harassment in the streets since going about uncovered. She hypothesized that this is because her hair – a luxurious nest of tightly-wound corkscrew curls, the kind we white girls covet – is mundane to most Egyptian men, no different from the unstraightened hair of all their mothers and sisters and aunties (check out her Friday post for a humorous account of her mother trying to convince her to get her hair straightened, which I guess is deemed the only polite way to wear unwrapped hair). While she says her family have been wholly supportive of her move to unpeel her scarves, she has nonetheless raised a lot of eyebrows, both in the neighborhood she grew up in and at work.  She seems to frequently have to defend her decision, particularly to other Muslim women.

One male English journalist here told me he thinks hijab-wearing is a cost-cutting move and nothing more for most working-class Egyptian women, who can’t afford to get their hair straightened every week and would be loathe to go out in public with a headful of kinky coils.

The Quran itself is vague at best on the matter – it seems that nowhere in the book are Muslim women explicitly ordered to cover their heads or faces. The main Koranic justification for the hijab lies – I believe – in Sura 33:53, which states, among other things, “O you who believe, do not enter the prophet’s homes unless you are given permission… If you have to ask his wives for something, ask them from behind a barrier. This is purer for your hearts and their hearts.”

Some take this to mean that all faithful and honorable women should speak to men – or even to non-Muslim women – from behind such a “barrier.” But some argue that the coverings were only to protect the prophet’s wives from insult.

General modesty, however, is urged in the Quran, as it is in the Bible (which, incidentally, explicitly calls on women to cover their heads). Sura 33:59 says “O prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and the wives of the believers that they shall lengthen their garments. Thus, they will be recognized (as righteous women) and avoid being insulted.”

It hardly seems that Muslim women have been given an indisputable mandate from God to keep their heads covered. These guys obviously disagree.

My only quibble with the Quranic (and Biblical) reasoning that women should cover up to prevent “insult” and “dishonor” from men who supposedly can’t control themselves – aside from the fact that it doesn’t bloody work – is that this seems a clear case of treating the symptoms of a malady while spreading the disease. If the problem is that men are walking ids and can’t accept that uncovered women aren’t some great passing smorgasbord of sexual delights, theirs and everyone’s to sample and comment on like so many cheeses at a buffet, then it seems obvious that this attitude will only be cemented by having women swaddled from head to toe. In other words, the harder women try to escape this childish entitlement men feel towards their bodies by keeping them out of sight, the more reason for men to treat every inch of visible skin like an invitation to raid the cookie jar. I’ve often found myself thinking that if all the women in Egypt were to suddenly tear off their veils and go around, hair flowing, in the short sleeves and airy skirts that only seem humane in these sweltering summers, the men would eventually get used to the female form and become relatively unphased by it. But it’s a prisoners’ dilemma – I certainly wasn’t ready to start the revolution while in Egypt, but kept myself well-hidden in long sleeves and baggy pants, with or without my hijab. Though it is negative help in combatting the general objectification of women, covering up is the best shot women in Egypt have for going about their business in peace.

Several of the women I spoke with on the subway – women who’ve been wearing the hijab their whole lives, and others who’ve only donned it in recent years – told me simply that they wear it because they’re Muslim. Point finale. While some stated this with the contention that their religion requires them to dress as such, others treated it as a symbol, rather than a requirement, of their faith – like Christians who wear the crucifix, Copts with their crosses tattooed on their inner wrists or Jews with a Star of David hanging from their necks. It seems logical that as religiosity rises in Egypt, so too would the adoption of one of the few outward signs of the country’s dominant faith.

There’s a lot of ink on how Egyptian shows of faith like the hijab have become more political – both a protest against Western influence and support for Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood. Though I’m sure this is true for some, no covered women I spoke with volunteered these reasons.

So, there. I had hoped to leave Cairo with some coherent thesis about what is at the root of the hijab, but no-go. It is a pledge of allegiance to a god who never ordered it. It is a modest covering and an attractive accessory. It is a shield of respectability aimed at a male population which nonetheless overlooks it while making sexual advances. Like the cellophane over the best breads in the Cairene bakery, it is protection for a valuable commodity. It is a link between those who wear it, and a perceived wall against those who don’t.

And it’s hot as hell in June.


One Response to “Day 38: Concluding Thoughts (Pt. 3): About This Hijab Business”

  1. lulu Says:

    Fascinating and enlightening. Until I read this, I always thought it WAS “ordained by God,” and all good female believers must wear a hijab, but no, eh? I personally like the theory that it’s a come-on….you know, like a body clad in some skimpy bits of underwear is far sexier than a totally nude one? Heh, I also like the idea that it solves the “bad hair day” issue. Maybe I should replace my baseball cap with one of these…xox

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