By Sherif Tarek
28 Apr 2015
After spending one year living in Cairo, Muslim teenager Sara decided to adopt the Islamic veil, dressing modestly to show only her face and the palms of her hands in public as per mainstream Islamic teachings for women.
She was not following her religious beliefs by wearing the Hijab, but rather succumbing to social pressure and seeking to avoid recurrent harassment.
Sara had visited Cairo beforehand. But when she began living there in 2001, she says, she experienced the predicament of being a woman in the huge city, both with and without the Hijab.
"Getting groped or touched by sexual harassers would happen on average once a month," recalls Sara, the daughter of an Egyptian mother and a Moroccan father who was born and raised in Kuwait.
"Verbal harassment, that's all the time. Not a day would go by without hearing comments whether from people flirting with me, hurling sexual insults at me, criticising or even cursing me for the way I dress.
"Many people would think women in Kuwait, as a Gulf country, have less freedom than in Egypt. As a matter of fact it's completely the opposite," says Sara, who speaks Egyptian Arabic almost perfectly.
Sara moved to Cairo to join the English section of the linguistics faculty at Ain Shams University. She first started to feel the differences between both countries' norms on campus.
"In my early days, I once went to the university in shorts. I was playing basketball at the time and shorts were just the most practical and convenient [thing]. I was denied entry at the gate by security personnel."
The Hijab became increasingly common among the working classes in Egypt from the 1970s.
In the early 2000s, thanks to rhetoric from Islamic preacher Amr Khaled, who was massively popular at the time among the youth, many girls from upper and middle classes opted to be veiled as well.
The harassment Sara was subject to was not always sexual, she says, but some also came from people – mainly female colleagues – who were not happy with the fact that she was Muslim and not veiled.
"I was once in the mosque of the university reading the Quran during the holy month of Ramadan, and then a girl congratulated me on 'converting to Islam.'
"Most people thought I was Christian because I was not veiled like the majority of Muslim girls in Cairo, and also because most of my university friends were Copts.
"Many veiled girls who found out I'm Muslim would persistently ask me to wear the Hijab. Their concern about my religion, my beliefs or how I dressed baffled me and was really annoying."
Sara wore the veil for five years. But the headscarf gave her little respite throughout the remainder of her time in Cairo, and she took it off following her departure.
"It was primarily to protect myself from sexual harassment, but the Hijab barely made a difference. Harassers would approach me anyway, though I lived in the upper class district of Maadi," she says.
"I also still found people who would express dismay at my Hijab, for not wearing a longer shirt or whatever. I would still hear comments from people who gave themselves the right to judge me.
"I took it off after I returned to Kuwait, where I can afford my penchant for wearing what I want. My father always told me I would eventually do that because he knew I never really wanted to be veiled.
"Sexual harassment could be the reason why a girl would wear the veil in Egypt, even today, I believe. I have visited Cairo several times in recent years and I see that sexual harassment is rampant.
"Also during my university days the Hijab was trending; another reason why I became veiled. My cousin at the time made the same decision and that encouraged me."
Social pressure and calls to wear the Islamic veil further increased after the 2011 uprising, which saw longstanding autocrat Hosni Mubarak toppled and Islamist forces come to power.
In the years that followed the uprising, Islamist forces dominated the first post-Mubarak parliament and helped Mohamed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, win the 2012 presidential poll.
At the same time, calls to "Islamise" Egypt became common on Islamist-leaning media outlets and from well-known clerics.
Flip side of coin
Morsi's ouster in July 2013 after nationwide mass protests against his rule, and the ensuing crackdown on Islamists and much of their media, have ended that rhetoric, paving the way for secular voices.
Writer Cherif Choubachy recently called for a demonstration in which veiled women would take off their headscarves, arguing that the hijab is the result of oppression and backwardness.
His proposed protest stirred up controversy, with some voicing support and others objecting to the call. There has still been no confirmation that any such rally will actually be staged.
Although she felt she was obliged to wear the hijab, Sara says she would not have taken part in such a demonstration had it taken place in Cairo when she was still veiled.
"If this is what I think, I shouldn't impose my opinion on the public," says Sara, who now works as a simultaneous interpreter and lives with her husband in New York.
"I can't really imagine a protest taking place in New York against a certain attire, though there are a lot more freedoms here.
"Right before I took off the hijab my application for a job at an international organisation was turned down in Kuwait. The official reason for the rejection was the veil. I was really upset."
While this is arguably a form of discrimination against veiled women, it is clearly discrimination to prevent them from entering public places.
In Egypt, it is common to prohibit veiled women from entering night clubs and pubs. Since last year, an increasing number of veiled women were reported to have been denied entry to restaurants as well.
One of the cases that created a fuss was that of Heba Arnaout, a professor of microbiology in her 50s who has been veiled for many years.
Going to a restaurant and bar in Cairo's upscale district of Zamalek late in December, she says she was asked to leave with her husband and foreign friends because she was wearing the hijab.
They got a table after threatening to go to the police and file a report against what she and her husband described as an encroachment on her civil and constitutional rights.
"Places like that, if they dare, should put a sign outside saying 'veiled women are not welcome.' Like when hotels would put a sign reading 'no pets allowed,'" Arnaout says.
"My only interpretation of what happened is that it's a form of religious discrimination. I understand if certain places have a dress code, like the Opera House for example. But that's not the case.
"What if I was wearing a hat? Or from a country where they wrap their heads in a traditional way and not for religious reasons? Will I still be given that attitude? The answer is probably not.
"Having a dress code and specifically preventing the Islamic veil are two different things. When we were arguing they told me they serve alcohol, as if they should decide for me if I should drink or not.
"A woman could be wearing the hijab only because she has cancer. Another could be wearing it and not praying, or drinking alcohol; not all veiled women are devout. In all cases it's none of their business."
Similarly, Choubachy has unilaterally decided to talk on behalf of veiled women and express what he thinks is best for them, Arnaout says.
"I understand that people have the right to express their opinions. A writer would produce an op-ed for instance, but you don't get to tell people what to do. It's my choice whether to wear the hijab or not."
But how often is it a matter of choice?
'Put on what people like,' or else
In Egypt, women are not usually free to wear what they want, states Dalia Abd El-Hameed, Gender and Women's Rights Officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR)*.
"For instance, an upper-class lady could be given hard time for wearing a veil because it's not very suitable for her social circles. That happens a lot and could affect the way a woman wants to dress.
"On the other hand, girls in rundown districts after a certain age would have to wear the hijab as per communal traditions. If not, she could suffer dire consequences in school, at home, or in the street.
"Women are not free to wear what they want and I'm glad this topic is brought to public discussion these days," Dalia opines, seeing the debate around the hijab as an impetus to female emancipation.
"Many factors control how women dress in Egypt," she explains. "Social class, workplaces, places of residence, families, among other elements affect how a woman dresses.
"These are layers of authority imposed on women's bodies, and that makes talking about how free women are to dress how they want relatively meaningless.
"In some cases, physical violence could be the price of challenging these authorities."
A photo of a young woman with a swollen eye and bruises on her cheek went viral on social media on Monday. She was allegedly assaulted for taking off her hijab three months ago.
A Facebook account named Nehal Kamal, the girl in the photo, says the injuries were the price of taking off the veil. She did not go through details and was not available for further comment.
"The one who wants to take off [the hijab] is not as untroubled as the one who wants to put [it] on," says Nehal, who identifies herself on Facebook as an interior designer, vocalist and actress.
"This is part of what happened to me when I decided to take off the hijab and only today [Monday] I felt enough courage to post this photo," she says in the public post.
In a later post, she explains that she uploaded the photo because "lately there was a mass call to take off the veil."
Many people reacted by saying every woman can just wear or not wear what she wants, Nehal goes on, "as if we live in a country that backs freedoms... as if whoever takes off the veil would live in peace."
"People need to know what we're living in our country and that there is no human, a boy or a girl, who does what they want."
A proverb saying "eat what you like, and put on what people like" sheds light on how judgmental Egyptian society can be when it comes to appearance, says Samia Kadri, a sociology professor.
"The old Egyptian proverb simply means people here have for long cared about appearance more than what's inside," she says, stressing that non-veiled women get the lion's share of prejudice.
Since the 1970s, women's veils started to become familiar in Egypt, "primarily due to strong religious rhetoric, and mass migration to Gulf countries that resulted in some of their traditions being brought back home."
"Now, maybe around five percent of women in Egypt are not veiled. That makes them out of the norm and, consequently in a society like ours, more prone to harassment and discrimination.
"There is a notable lack of morals. Thus many people, whether sexual harassers or conservative individuals, wouldn't hesitate to stigmatise women in different ways for how they dress," Samia says.
"It will take decades to have a society that accepts differences in Egypt, if that will ever happen. Media and education, among a myriad of other elements, would be involved in such a transformation."
Next to social pressure, political affiliations could be an extra burden for women, Dalia elaborates.
"EIPR observed cases where veiled Syrian women were physically attacked, insulted and kicked out of public microbuses because people recognised their nationality through their distinct hijab."
Many people who oppose ousted president Morsi believe Syrians in Egypt, who are in the many thousands thanks to the civil war in Syria, were supporting him and opposed his toppling.
"We also got reports that face-veiled women [who are usually ultra-conservative and of Islamist affiliations] were attacked by anti-Islamists individuals," Dalia continues.
"On the other hand, we had reports of women who were attacked by Islamists for not wearing the hijab; it goes both ways."
In general, there is a widespread notion that women are bearers of the national identity and should dress accordingly, Dalia says.
"Veiled women from the Brotherhood always stress the way they dress expresses the Islamic identity of the country. Some liberal women would think they support secularism by doing the opposite.
"Women need to be free of that notion and realise they only represent themselves. No one asks men not to wear trousers and put on traditional attire for the sake of the country's identity."
*Established in 2002, EIPR's mission reads it has been working to strengthen and protect basic rights and freedoms in Egypt, and is supporting litigation in the fields of civil liberties and social rights.