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More Egyptian women reject hijab

The hijab in Egypt has always been a matter of controversy.
Egyptian women wear full-face veils in al-Montazah district of Egypt's second city of Alexandria on March 26, 2018.

On her 26th birthday, Sarah (pseudonym), a village girl, left her rented house in Cairo in a state of psychological turmoil and with her heart racing. Upon reaching a cafe in Tahrir Square in the center of the Egyptian capital, she took off her hijab and felt free for the first time in her life.

For four years, Sarah had been wondering what her fate would be if she removed her hijab. When she finally did, she was not spared psychological violence from her relatives and neighbors in the Sharqia governorate in northern Egypt — her cousin even claimed that she was in an illegal relationship with a young man her age in Cairo, advising her mother to throw her out into the streets. 

Sarah told Al-Monitor that this made her spiral into a mental breakdown from which she is still trying to recover.

Sarah’s experience cannot be separated from the experience of many Egyptian women over the past years. With the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution on Jan. 25, 2011, Egyptian society witnessed a “clear drop in the number of women wearing veils in the street,” according to 2020 research conducted by the Khotwa Center for Documentation and Studies.

The research attributed that drop to “the freedom felt after the revolution, which led to a series of repercussions, the most prominent of which was the state of disintegration that affected many traditional values and the desire of many to get rid of the imposed social, cultural and religious restrictions, and their attempt to break all the constants, to demolish the old and rebuild on the new foundations and standards.” 

Egyptian women’s dress code has long been associated with the cultural and political situation rather than being limited to religious convictions.

With the advent of the French campaign in Egypt (1798-1801) and then its occupation by British forces (1882-1922), Western fashion spread in Egyptian streets, followed by calls for removing the hijab. Back then, Egyptian society was experiencing a movement of political, religious, cultural and intellectual liberation, and its most prominent faces included writer Qassem Amin — who for decades called for the liberation of women — and political leader Saad Zaghloul.

Egypt experienced a nascent liberal experience between 1924 and 1936 when it witnessed a remarkable decrease in the number of veiled women. This continued until the late 1960s when most Egyptian women began wearing short skirts and short-sleeved shirts.

The nascent socialist project was later foiled at the hands of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (1970-1981), as the influence of political Islam groups flourished under his era along with the massive return of Egyptian labor from the Gulf, carrying with them Wahhabi-Salafist ideas. Simultaneously, the number of women wearing veils in universities and workplaces increased.

At the end of the 1970s, Nadia (a pseudonym), who comes from a middle-class family in al-Fayoum governorate south of Cairo, was still not veiled. She told Al-Monitor, “I used to wear a short skirt and go to work in the governmental sector, and it was normal in those days.” This was before women underwent clear changes.

“Suddenly, everyone around me wore the hijab,” she said. In the early 1980s, she followed suit and was veiled at the age of 50.

Nadia's granddaughter, Yusra (pseudonym), said that she also wore the hijab in 2004 amid the spread of slogans like “Islam is the solution” in the streets of Egypt, after she was subjected to harassment when she was 13. But she had been toying with the idea of removing it for years.

Yusra, who lives in al-Haram neighborhood in Giza near Cairo, told Al-Monitor, “The hijab deprived me of wearing the clothes I wanted and feeling feminine during my adolescence.”

But it was not simply about “removing a piece of cloth in light of societal pressures that intimidated those who took such a step. So I waited,” she said.

About three years ago, Yusra was harassed in the street when she was 27. This angered her and she cried a lot. “I was convinced that I lived in a society that violates my freedom and my body, whether I wear the hijab or not. I decided not to be submissive anymore,” she said. Thus, she removed her veil.

Yusra describes her first feeling after going into the street without the veil as “the most beautiful moment in my life. I felt free, as if I had conquered something that was greater than me. But I also felt a bit ashamed, and I imagined that all the people were staring at me because I was not wearing a veil.”

Although there are no specific statistics on the number of veiled women in Egypt due to the sensitivity of the issue, it seems more Egyptian women are removing their veils despite societal pressures and the ensuing harassment. 

In January 2014, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research conducted a survey in seven Muslim-majority countries (including Egypt), asking research participants about their preferences for women’s types of veils to wear in public. According to the results, the majority believe that women must wear the veil covering their heads and the hijab. 

In Alexandria in northern Egypt, Yasmine (a pseudonym) faced many difficulties when she removed her veil. “Of course, my parents did not approve. But I am in my mid-30s and don’t need anyone’s approval to do this,” she told Al-Monitor.

At the same time, Yasmine, a widow, understands her parents’ concerns for her. “Egyptian society, which is patriarchal, expects certain behaviors from widows, including that she should not take care of herself or dress well.” 

“It helped a lot that I saw a psychologist when I removed my veil,” she added.

Yasmine was not the only one who sought professional help after her decision. Many other women sought refuge at the Protection and Reception Women's Center, a government project to protect women who are victims of violence, according to project coordinator Nivine Adly.

“The center provides psychological sessions to help women overcome the pressures caused by their decision to remove the veils,” Adly told Al-Monitor.

Samia Khoder, a professor of sociology with the education faculty at Ain Shams University in Egypt, warns of the consequences of psychological violence against a woman after she removes her veil. Such violence "makes her feel contempt and exclusion and throws her into social isolation. This might develop into anger and hatred, and then she might spiral into a societal circle of hate and counter-hate.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Khoder attributed the culture of meddling in the lives of others in Egypt — including caring about who takes off the veil and who does not — to an “intellectual void.” This term is used to refer to the emptiness of the mind and thought from what is useful or beneficial, in a way that makes the person susceptible to being pulled in any direction, regardless of its scientific basis, its degree of validity and its suitability to practical reality, she said.

Khoder explained that this intellectual void varies in degree according to the environment and the context. “People’s level of meddling in others’ lives varies depending on the cultural, educational, social and economic levels,” she said, noting that it is more common in rural areas than cities.

Khoder asserted that the pursuit of changing that culture is not only a personal task but rather a matter of a general environment that exalts the values ​​of freedom, especially personal freedom and freedom of belief.

Esraa (a pseudonym), a woman from the Dakahlia governorate in the northeast of the Delta in Egypt, dreams of living in an atmosphere of freedom.

The 30-year-old told Al-Monitor that she will take off her hijab sooner or later — all she is waiting for is the opportunity to do so.

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