Egypt unveiled

After seven days in Alexandria, I wondered if the head scarves donned by Muslim women were down to fashion or religious observance.

hijab cairo women arab 311 (photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
hijab cairo women arab 311
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
It took less than three days in Egypt for me to decide that I just had to have a hijab.
"Why do you need one?" quizzed my colleague as I tried on a dizzying selection of different head scarves - single colors, multi-colored, silk, cotton, pashmina and more. "You are a secular Jew living in Israel, do you really need one?"
We were in Egypt to participate in a conference exploring freedom of expression in the digital age. Taking place at the famous Bibliotheca Alexandrina and sponsored by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, the International Center for Journalists and the Anna Lindh Foundation, the three-day event included 40 journalists from the West, Muslim countries, and me, from Israel.
The irony that as a secular Jew I felt wholly compelled to buy myself a Muslim head-covering was not lost on me or my colleague. The pull was clearly not a religious one, but what was it that was pushing me to mull covering up, at least for the duration of my stay in Alexandria? I was sure it wasn't caused by the constant attention - bordering on sexual harassment - from local Egyptian men (although this might have been a subconscious reason) but, rather, it seemed to be led by the fashion-victim factor.
All around me Egyptian women young and old paraded through the streets of the decaying coastal city wearing their decorative headgear with pride. Puffed up, smoothed down, tucked in, flaring out, with and without tassels, sequins and embroidery, they were far more beautiful than any coiffed hairstyle.
I could count on one hand the number of women not wearing this symbol of modesty. My bare head made me stand out like a sore thumb, turning me into a tourist, or loose woman - or both.
Although I ultimately decided to forgo the scarf, I was left intrigued by this ancient Islamic dress code. Purely from observations, I noticed that aside from those obviously wearing the niqab (face veil) or hijab (head scarf) for religious reasons, many of the younger women - who mixed the headdress with more Western attire - seemed to be making a fashion statement.
"Hijab is such a huge topic," Ethar El-Katatney, an award-winning Egyptian journalist participating in the conference, told me. "There are many reasons why women choose to cover their heads. Some wear it because they feel it is commanded by their faith but others because of the culture, peer pressure, societal expectations, and even fashion sometimes."
"The reasons very much depend on the country and context," continued El-Katatney, a contributing writer to Muslimah Media Watch (, an online English-language portal dealing with how Muslim women are represent in the global media.
"In some places, it can be a political statement. In others, it can be a statement against the Western culture that places so much importance on a woman's beauty," added the hijab-wearing journalist.
According to El-Katatney, who less than a month ago underscored what drives women in her country to cover up or not in an aptly named article "The Cloth Divide," some 90 percent of Egyptian women do cover their heads "across all classes and segments." "Many do wear it out of religious conviction, but many don't," she wrote. "Many do not understand that the hijab is supposed to represent he concept of modesty in Islam, and that covering your hair is only part of it."
Another participant at the conference, Hani Hazaimeh, senior reporter and editor at The Jordan Times in Amman, told me that under Islamic dress codes, "Women are supposed wear dresses, not pants, but what we see here in the streets is completely the opposite. The women cover their heads but they wear tight colored pants and tight shirts exposing certain details of their bodies that make them even more attractive to men. This totally contradicts the reason behind proper Islamic dress codes."
"Recently, the Arab world has been witnessing a remarkable trend among young Muslims of returning to religion, especially for single people," he explained. "Taking that into consideration, women have resorted to wearing the hijab but not always for religious reasons. Usually it is more to portray a certain image to unmarried and conservative Muslim men."
Hazaimeh, who describes himself as an observant Muslim, pointed out that the majority of women wearing hijabs, especially the younger ones, do not pray or adhere to other Islamic rituals.
"I believe that wearing hijabs in the Arab world can be perceived as more of a fashion statement than an adherence to Islam," he said, adding that according to Islam women must cover their bodies from head to toe with the exception of their faces and hands.
ACCORDING to Dr. Aref Abu-Rabia, chair of the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a published anthropologist, the word hijab, derives from the verb hajaba, meaning "to hide from view or to conceal." In his paper "The Veil and Muslim Women in France," Abu-Rabia cites from the Encyclopedia of Islam that "Hijab literally means 'veil, barrier, curtain, amulet, protection or cover' and is used to describe any veil placed in front of a person in order to conceal themselves from view or to isolate themselves."
"Most Muslim women who wear a hijab do so for religious reasons," maintained Abu-Rabia, in an interview earlier this week. "In the West, there are many stereotypes about veiled women, but I believe that the hijab is worn only by religious and/or traditional Muslims."
"For most Europeans, veiling, as presented in the press and media, has been associated with religious fundamentalism," he wrote in his paper, arguing, however that "many young women find in the veil a symbol, a positive identity and a source of esteem sanctioned by Islam." Quoting Fadwa El Guindi's Veiling Infitah with Muslim Ethics: Egypt's Contemporary Islamic Movement, Abu-Rabia further pointed out that: "In the last 20 to 30 years, many middle-and upper-class married and single women in Egypt are re-veiling, adopting new versions of Islamic dress, including head to toe coverings. Today, young educated girls and Muslim women across the social class structure are returning to wearing the veil."
He added: "… it's a kind of voluntary women's movement to abandon Western clothes in favor of Arab-Islamic dress."
WHILE the number of Muslim women around the world sporting a head scarf or veil is clearly growing, Mariam Sobh, editor-in-chief of the Chicago-based on-line magazine, argues that the modernizing element - mixing Western dress with a traditional head-covering - is less about fashion but more about an individual's interpretation of religion.
"As a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, I wear it because I believe it's required for me to do so," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "However, I don't feel that the hijab or following a modest dress code requires women to give up their expression and identity."
"I agree that it's very contrary to see women wear something that is supposed to hide certain attributes and yet they seem to be doing the opposite, but what I have concluded is that it's not because they want to be 'cool' or 'in fashion,'" she said.
Rather, Sobh pointed to either strict guidelines from parents or the pull of peer pressure and an attempt to fit in as reasons to cover up.
"I really don't think girls are putting on the hijab because they want to make a fashion statement," she insisted. "That to me sounds absurd. It's such a struggle to wear it that I would be shocked if there were girls who put it on just because they thought it was a trend!"
Sobh, however, does admit that there are some women who "do not really understand the guidelines of wearing the hijab and they think it's appropriate [to wear it and dress in a less than modest fashion]."
On her Web site, Sobh features some of the world's best-known fashion gurus - if their designs fit with Islamic dress codes - and claims that Muslim women are rebelling against the gaudy outfits of the past and embracing individualism as long as it fits with tradition.
"In the past, Muslim women didn't experiment with colors and fabrics and styles. There were just a few looks that they went with (usually designed by men) and that was it," she said. "These usually consisted of a long overcoat known as a "jilbab" or "abaya" that a woman would wear over her clothing."
However, Sobh added, "More Muslim women than ever before are in the public eye; they are teachers, lawyers, politicians, designers, actresses, and more. They know that as long as they adhere to what is required of them according to the Islamic dress code, then it doesn't matter what they wear."
According to Sobh, "Once women let go of culture and realize that thehijab is basically a guideline for what you can and can't show inpublic, then it becomes easier to work with.
"More women, I believe, are starting to wear hijab because they seethat it can be done without giving up their identity," she added. "Theycan still be who they are even if they happen to dress differently. Forexample, someone who is really into fashion can still continue thatpassion and wear the latest designers, but she might tweak a few thingslike wear a longer top or looser pants and a head scarf."
Back in Alexandria, Egyptian women bask in the Mediterranean sunshineproudly showing off their colorful headwear. The debate over wearingthe hijab for religion or fashion does not seem to matter, neither dothe recent rulings by local institutions to ban women wearing afull-face veil.
"Egypt is polarized for many reasons but the veil isn't a reason why," said El-Katatney.