Many Muslim women in Egypt wear the hijab by choice. For them, it represents piety - and in Egypt, religion is in fashion.
“I wear it to get closer to God and make Him happy in whatever way I can,” says Mai Hisham, a recent college graduate. “But also it makes me feel more sophisticated and look more mature in public.”
Other Egyptian women say their relationship with their headscarves is complex. What is simpler, they say, is their fight for the right to wear what they want, whatever it may be.
Mai Hisham, 24, says she believes veils please God and wearing a hijab is part of her right to express herself. "I feel that it makes me looks like myself enough,” she says. “It’s a part of my character.” Cairo, July 30, 2016. (H. Elrasam/VOA)
The government does not dictate what women wear, but women face social pressure to both wear and not wear the hijab. Some upscale restaurants ban veiled women, while those who forgo the scarf may be subjected to abuses from friends, family or even strangers.
‘Your clothes are sinful’
“The taxi driver seemed normal,” says Azza Fadaly, an ‘unveiled’ photo editor, examining pictures of student protests. She explains how people she has never met sometimes judge her for her lack of a headscarf, without even knowing for sure if she is Muslim. “But then his language became violent, saying, ‘Your clothes are sinful and you should not be in public without a hijab!’”
Azza Fadaly says, “I respect those who where hijabs or full veils. I hope one day to live in a community where I don’t have the right to judge anyone in a hijjab and they have no right to judge me. Cairo, June 21, 2016. (H. Elrasam/VOA)
Her friends and family are more confused than angered by her choice, regularly asking if she plans to start covering her hair; but Fadaly says she has never worn a hijab outside a mosque because her family believes, like many, that religion does not specifically require hair covering.
Other families, however, have a difficult time accepting daughters who choose not to wear headscarves, says Aya Abdullah, a 28-year-old social media reporter who abandoned her hijab two years ago. Inspired by the 2011 uprising and the discourse of free expression and belief, she says she eventually decided she had to wear clothes she deemed fit, despite the hardship. “I was so young when I started wearing the hijab,” she says. “It was never my decision.”
Aya Abdullah’s father was furious when she stopped wearing a hijab and the two fought for months before he gave in. Cairo, June 20, 2016. (H. Elrasam/VOA)
When she started going out unveiled, she adds, her father was livid. He ordered her to stay in her room for 10 days, and then refused to speak with her for three months. During many fights that interrupted the silence, he told her that God would blame him for her sin if he allowed her to go out unveiled.
Eventually they consulted a cleric, who agreed that the veil should be worn, but told her father that since she is an adult, he is not responsible. “My father now shares pictures of me on Facebook,” she says.
Show of solidarity in Iran
In Iran, some men are posting pictures of themselves in hijabs as part of an Internet campaign to protest laws forcing women to be veiled. They say women should not have to cover their hair in public unless they want to do so. Some Egyptian women say they support this campaign because more than anything else, they feel their clothing should be their choice.
Sahar Arabi says she is not sure she wants to wear a headscarf, but she is sure she doesn’t want to deal with disdainful treatment. Cairo, June 20, 2016. (H. Elrasam/VOA)
In Egypt, Saher Arabi says “at some point I might think of taking off the hijab. She went on to say, “but our problem in Egypt is our class system. I’m not sure I should say this, but if you go to average people’s houses without a headscarf, they look at you like you are strange, and you feel awkward.”
The hijab issue in Egypt isn't a new one - watch Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser on the subject more than 60 years ago: