Egypt: Behind the veil

Al Ahram
The hijab survived the controversy it once generated because it is a milder form of modesty. Allow me to mention that our mothers and sisters didn't feel the need to wrap their heads or cover their faces and still maintained their modesty in public.
In Egypt and the UK, controversy over Islamic dress for women has dominated the headlines of late. Pundits have been debating the ability of women wearing the niqab, or full-face veil, to remain part of public life. The niqab is a state of mind. Women who cover their faces usually cover their entire bodies, even the hands.
The niqab is the latest women's fashion and it is foisted upon religion with no valid reason. Women wearing the niqab cannot move, speak, eat or even see. And yet, some people insist that it is a religious duty to wear it.

In London, Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, urged Muslim women in his Blackburn constituency to abandon the niqab when they come to him with concerns, arguing that the full-face veil impedes communication. His remarks triggered angry demonstrations and ignited heated debate. The British minister of education sided with Straw, saying that college professors feel uncomfortable lecturing to women wearing the niqab. The minister said he supported the decision by the London Royal Academy to bar students wearing the face veil. At primary schools in the UK, students complained that they couldn't understand teachers who covered their faces.

A parallel surfaced in Helwan University in Egypt. The university's president barred women wearing the niqab from using the campus dormitories, citing security concerns as well as the women's own safety. Although he still allowed niqab -clad women onto campus and into lecture rooms, the university president came under fire. Some likened him to President Jacques Chirac of France who banned headscarves in schools.

Aside from the niqab controversy, Helwan and Blackburn are as different as night and day. In the UK, Straw was accused of using the niqab for political purposes. The same accusation makes no sense in Helwan. The niqab controversy is not about freedom of dress or faith, for niqab is neither an ordinary item of clothing nor a religious duty: it is a statement of modesty gone astray. Women who wear the niqab stand out in public more than those who dress otherwise. Wearing the niqab to work or school is just as outrageous as wearing a bathing suit or pyjamas to the office.

Ours is a conservative society and no one can claim that critics of the niqab are politically motivated. It is a fact that the niqab degrades women and restricts their opportunities. Women wearing the niqab become sexual objects by implication. They cannot function effectively as teachers or doctors, journalists or government employees. They cannot interact normally with the outside world. Women who take on the niqab forfeit their personal freedom for no good reason.

But what we have here is a problem that one cannot resolve through religious edicts or police action alone. We have to talk to these women. We have to learn more about them. In many cases, niqab-clad women come from rural backgrounds and are intimidated by big cities. They are experiencing a cultural shock and they use the niqab as a defence against the outside world. If I am right in this assessment, then the logical conclusion is that we must offer them help and counsel before we rush into counter-measures, as we usually do. Let's help these young women overcome their fears. Let's make them feel that the world is a safe place. Once their fears are gone, chances are they won't feel the need to cover their faces.

Salama A Salama
Al Ahram, 19-25 October 2006