Not even 100 years after Egyptian women fought to break free from veiling, a new age has ushered in a brand-new acceptance of hijab, with women turning to the practice, sometimes at a young age, sometimes later in life. “The observation is accurate,” Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim told VOA News, “that there are more women in veil, or behind the veil, than ever there were in modern Egyptian history.”
While many experts attribute the veil’s increased demand to conservatism brought in by Egyptian men who worked in Saudi Arabia, the women wearing it are not so quick to agree, preferring instead to take on a more active role that involved choice on their part, not passive acceptance of what conservative men preferred.
By covering up, women have in effect reflected a greater void in modern Egyptian society — the “gap between what the people needed and what the government provided,” explained Center for Egyptian Women’s Azza Soliman, “so many people turned to religion to fill the gap. And many women chose to express their new religion by putting on the veil.”
“The veiling was, in a sense, a compromise to be able to participate as fully as possible without being perceived as lacking in ethics or morality or being loose,” Ibrahim said. “If veiling was the price, many women, many young girls, have accepted to pay that price.”
While Western society typically sees veiling as a step backwards, even a symbol of oppression, women who engage in the practice don’t tend to agree. “On the contrary, sometimes women feel empowered by their veil because it protects them somehow from being targeted,” said newspaper editor Rania Al Malky. “Some of the leading youth figures, who are women in the youth movement that led this revolution, were young, veiled women.”
“In some cases you had women who were not veiled, but basically played no role in society,” said veteran journalist Hisham Kassem. “But when I see a veiled woman who’s out there demonstrating, this is somebody on the move to play a role. The attire is not going to be an issue here. It’s the role they are going to play. And that will eventually lead to full equality, as opposed to women simply taking off the veil, but playing no active role.”
Just like a book can’t be judged by its cover, neither can these women be judged by their veils. Veil or not, what really matters to many in Egypt is the role that a woman plays in society, not the way she dresses. It’s the way she acts, not the way she looks, that will have a far greater influence on the outcome of Egypt’s future.
Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon via flickr