|What Does Hijab Mean to the Muslim Women?|
"Hijab protects me" What Does Hijab Mean to the Muslim Women?
The debate on the French ban on the niqab or burqa --the face cover worn by some Muslim women-- has intensified in recent weeks . This, after France passed a law prohibiting women from covering their faces in public. Those who defy the ban will have to pay a fine of up to €150 and may also have to attend citizenship classes. Opponents denounce the ban as “undemocratic” arguing that “it transgresses on personal and religious freedoms.”
In Egypt , a growing number of women have taken on the headscarf or hijab in the last fifteen to twenty years. More recently, there’s also been a noticeable increase in the number of women covering their faces despite moves by the Mubarak regime –backed by sheikhs from Al Azhar--to ban the full veil in university classrooms and dormitories. During the Mubarak era, Al Azhar--- for centuries the highest Sunni Muslim authority -- was not independent of the state. A number of Al Azhar rulings were dictated by the President himself rather than being based on Koranic stipulations.
Muslim scholars are divided over how much of her body a Muslim woman should or should not conceal. The majority of scholars rule that the niqab is not obligatory but concede that it is an act of extra piety that will be rewarded by Allah. These same scholars however advocate hijab saying it is compulsory for women to cover their hair . At the other end of the scale are the conservatives who believe a woman must cover up everything but her eyes.
Women’s clothes on display in shop windows in downtown Cairo reflect the glaring contradictions in modern-day Egyptian society. From backless halter tops and Folies Bergere-style black lace top fishnet stockings to the all enveloping loose robes traditionally worn by lower and middle class Egyptian women ---the cultural clash in today’s Egypt is clearly visible here.
At Cairo University the majority of female students on campus are wearing a headscarf. They tell me the hijab is a symbol of liberation not suppression.
"I feel more relaxed with my hair covered . I can move more freely . I don’t get harassed as often as I did without the headscarf. The hijab protects me,” says Iman el Kashef, a student at Cairo University’s Faculty of law
But the hijab is also a protest against growing Western influence . Khaled el Guendy, a lay preacher responsible for many young people converting to hijab, believes the headscarf is indeed a political statement.
"Muslim women are trying to assert their Islamic identity through their style of dress,” El Guendy says. “It’s their way of protesting Western policies vis a vis the Middle East. The hijab is a way of recognizing the Muslim woman”.
While many researchers agree that the growing conservative trend is a direct response to American Middle Eastern policies after the September 11th 2001 terror attacks , they also blame the dire economic conditions.
Frustration has been growing among the less privileged members of society because of the rampant unemployment and soaring food prices, says Madiha el Safty,Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo . This disillusionment and inability to improve their desperate situation is behind the growing conservatism in Egyptian society. She adds that women in male dominated Arab societies are socially, economically and politically repressed which makes them gullible to the influence of religious groups trying to advance their own ambitious political agendas for the creation of a theocratic state.
Economist Galal Amin, author of "Whatever Happened to the Egyptians" blames the growing religiosity on an ultra conservative brand of Islam imported from Saudi Arabia. Many Egyptians who left the country in the seventies to work in the oil rich Gulf states at the time of the oil boom adopted Wahhabism or Salafism , a stricter form of Islam popular in Saudi Arabia, he explains. He adds that in recent years conservatism has spread to the upper classes as well.
While seeming to advance a secular agenda, the previous government had –ironically—helped encourage the spread of religiosity through its discriminatory policies against the underprivileged classes and by promoting Wahhabism through numerous Saudi controlled satellite channels. Mubarak’s security apparatus may have dealt decisively with the Islamist threat of the eighties and nineties but it has left the ideological march largely unchecked. After the ouster of the Mubarak regime, Islamist hardliners like the Sallafis—barred from politics under Mubarak have, much to the alarm of moderate Egyptians, emerged from the shadows to form political parties. Their leaders claim to have renounced violence and say they now embrace democracy. Many Egyptians are left wondering if visible changes-- such as women taking on the face veil-- are a prelude to a more comprehensive change yet to come.