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Over the past few months the issue of the hijab or the head dress worn by women, has taken over as a point of social contention. The hijab, which is mainly associated with conservative Islam, has been gaining popularity in Egypt with the advent of the strict Wahabi teachings imported from Saudi Arabia. With the rise in both social influence and political power of the Muslim Brotherhood, the hijab in Egypt became prevalent, starting with the poorer and less educated classes, then seeping into the higher echelons of society. When the Muslim Brotherhood came into political power, the hijab was already prevailing in Egypt and entrenched in certain strata of society.

The covering of the head of a woman had always been a tradition in Egypt, especially in rural areas, but the specific hijab, which is far more than the loose scarf or veil previously used, has now become an icon of conservative Islam. This, in a sense, has become not just a symbol of conservative Islam, but also a discriminatory sign, separating not only non-conservative Muslims from conservative ones, but also as a strong pointer towards Christian women. This has reached a point where an uncovered female head has become automatically that of a Christian woman, or worse still, of a Muslim woman who does not follow her “proper” religion.
At the beginning of the January 2011 revolution, such religious fervour was at its highest peak. Bearded men in short white jalabeyas started taking to the streets berating women with uncovered heads. But they were in for an extremely unpleasant surprise. Despite the long decades where Egyptian women have been treated as second class citizens and brainwashed into thinking that their role is only as a man’s plaything, created only for his comfort and pleasure, yet Egyptian women’s indomitable spirit was never broken. When these bearded men started berating and threatening women on the street to cover their heads and even wear their version of conservative clothes, their reception was classic. The women immediately turned on them and beat the living daylights out of them. The famous blood of our ancient Egyptian grandmother Shagaret El Dor, took over. With slippers and shoes as their weapon of choice Egyptian women everywhere, in both urban and rural areas, made it abundantly clear that it is their choice, and absolutely no person is allowed to force her into what she does not want.

After the one year of disastrous rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, conservative Islam took a very hard blow in Egyptian society. Those who wore all the signs of piety through either sporting a beard or wearing white jalabeyas for men, or of wearing the hijab, or more extremely the niqab, and those long dresses that cover a woman totally, all those came to be regarded as hypocrites. Not only did they dupe the general public into thinking that they were a notch above them in being nearer to God, but they turned out to be even worse than anybody else through their greed, gluttony and deviant sexual behaviour. Although at the time the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood had seemed like a disaster of extreme proportions, yet in hindsight it was a blessing in disguise. It managed in one short year to destroy the image of them that took decades to build, of piety, goodness and charity.
After the Muslim Brotherhood were removed from office through a very strong popular revolt by the people, aided and assisted by the military, the Wahabi conservative Islamic tide started ebbing in Egyptian society. Many a woman was so disillusioned by the vicious, criminal behaviour of the extreme elements of the Muslim Brotherhood that turned to violence against the Egyptian army, police and finally the people, resulting in these women taking off the hijab as a symbol, a rejection of that form of extreme conservatism.
The tide turned further when some restaurants and nightclubs started turning away veiled customers as not adhering to the dress code applicable in their establishments. This caused a furore on social media, with those for or against. The issue was dealt with as a point of personal freedom. This is a very touchy subject as the hijab, though it is a personal choice by individual women, has yet been used as a general sign of a certain way of thinking, strongly associated with conservative Islam. Because of this latter meaning, the hijab had taken on a much larger meaning than just a personal preference in attire. It is a way of life, which, unfortunately, or fortunately according to your point of view, through the mishandling of the Muslim Brotherhood, meant that women were more subservient to men and that what the men of “religion” said was the law. The most vociferous of these “men of religion” turned out to be a group of sexually frustrated, world greedy old men who saw women as a sexual object and who gave men the right to become true animals in the full sense of the word. Through numerous “fatwas” (religious edicts) they sanctified murder, robbery, lies, adultery and rape, saying that these were all allowed under special circumstances! These had nothing whatsoever to do with Islam the original religion. Egyptians were appalled. They not only became totally disgusted, but completely disillusioned as well by the behaviour of such supposedly pious men ” who knew God”.
The tide turned.
The beard was looked upon as suspicious, the hijab though has taken longer to change in meaning. But the tide is relentless. Now that the general consensus of society is that these are all aspects of suspicious and unacceptable behaviour denoting some kind of hypocritical fraud, the disappearance of the hijab will be a matter of time. Today there is even talk of banning the hijab in schools for young girls. That is an official step that is in train with the general feeling of society.
I am sure that there will be pockets of strong resistance, but the writing is on the wall where the hijab is concerned. There might be a return to the ordinary, decorative veil previously used in rural Egypt, but the hijab, in its strict, rigid application of Wahabi conservatism is really on its way out. There might be lingering die hards, especially among older women, but the new generations will not willingly go back to it.
16 August 2015