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Hijabs, hyper-machoism and hypocrisy: Egypt’s story

April 30, 2015 at 10:49 am

On 6 April, a Facebook post by a self-proclaimed women’s rights activist demanded that women all over Egypt should march to Tahrir Square in Cairo to take off their hijabs to show that they are in control of their bodies. This post ensured that all women in the protest will be protected from any form of assault by men; it also happened to be written by a man. Just by looking at the post, it’s clear that it’s plagued by male privilege masked with his claim to be “re-thinking” Islamic values. The deeper one looks into the issue, it shows that the post, and the man who wrote it, Cherif Choubachy, represent the continuation of the dehumanisation of women, but under a new ideological framework that criminalises both religious freedom and the rights of women in order to boost his ego and that of other pseudo-feminists in Egypt.

The Facebook post gained near immediate popularity in the Arab world, with Choubachy, a man who identifies with Islam, being praised for speaking against the oppression of women and apparently advocating freedom of expression through dress. He was “liked” for his so-called bravery and criticism by many people who were oblivious to his other statements and journalism. Those who praise him for championing women’s rights are probably oblivious that his opinions come from his personal dislike for the hijab itself. For example, he has not only tweeted that the hijab is fuel for political Islamism rather than a choice women make to submit to God, but also shamed women who wear the hijab for what he believes is their hypocrisy and immorality.

In a recent TV interview, he justified his bias against the hijab by saying that most women who wear it tend to be insecure about their morality, so they present their piety through external modesty. He tried to add empiricism into his argument by recalling when he went into a prison to visit a family and finding all of the female prisoners wearing the hijab; this provided what was, according to him, a part of his in-depth analysis that brought him further to his conclusion. His “evidence” included an unrecorded conversation with one unnamed police officer who apparently told him that 90 per cent of prostitutes wear the hijab. In a video he posted on YouTube in 2014, Choubachy said that the percentage of prostitutes in Egypt who wear the hijab is 99 per cent, again without citing any credible sources for this statistic. When that clip was played back to him after he made the baseless 90 per cent claim and he was asked about his sources, he laughed awkwardly and tried to move on with the debate.

These baseless claims, which are probably best described as outrageous lies, show that rather than “liberating” women, he’s creating and perpetuating a dangerous criminalising discourse which suits his own political purposes. The fact that he even brought prostitutes and female criminals into the debate makes it clear that his argument on morality is inherently patriarchal, as he does not question the causes behind the descent into crime and prostitution.

Egypt has appalling rates of violence against women; indeed, 93 per cent of women claim to have been sexually abused at one point in their lives, 46 per cent them being housewives. The police in Egypt have a reputation for dismissing women as a matter of course when they complain about such abuse. Domestic abuse, says an Amnesty International study, is embedded in the system both formally and informally as a private household affair in which the police should not get involved. A World Bank publication shows that women are also at a financial disadvantage in Egypt, as they are less favoured in the workplace. Over 50 per cent of Egyptian employers see no advantage in hiring a female employee and only 18 per cent believe that females are productive and committed to their job. In addition to obvious gaps in payment, promotion and leave, women are vulnerable in the workplace, leaving those who escape from domestic abuse to suffer due to the general lack of protection apparently built-in to Egyptian society and the judiciary. In such circumstances, many women feel that they have no other option but to turn to crime and prostitution.

Not once did Choubachy comment on the patriarchy that’s inherent in Egyptian society or suggest that men should change their attitudes towards women. He simply blamed women for situations they have been forced into and demanded that they take action against the men in their lives who force them to wear the hijab. In doing so he forgets about more life-threatening forms of abuse that women are subject to and blames them for being born into a system that criminalises their very existence. Rather than demanding that men should take a stand against the overall subjugation of women and provide support for women in order to allow them material strength to stand up to the many forms of discrimination they face, or even questioning the nature of patriarchy in Egypt, Choubachy is perpetuating patriarchy, but through new demands.

He has also sparked national dialogue on the nature of the hijab. Just by looking at his personal Facebook account, it’s easy to see that many of his subscribers have used his outrageous campaign to shame women who choose to cover up. Photos of women covering their hair at the beach whilst wearing a bikini (something that’s done to protect the hair from UV damage) are often posted on social media as “the modern hijab”; women who wear the hijab along with tight clothing are also shamed. It’s clear that supporters of the “hijabless” campaign are focusing purely on women and how they dress, rather than raising awareness of female subjugation and domestic abuse.

A third way that Choubachy justifies his attack on the hijab is by saying that covering the hair is not compulsory in Islam as it is not mentioned specifically in the Qur’an; only modesty is. His methodology in providing such an opinion is in itself a contradiction of one of the main aspects of the Islamic sciences, which is that the Qur’an has to be considered alongside relevant authentic Prophetic sayings when matters of right and wrong are being considered. This necessity is referred to in verse 7 of Surah Hashr in the Qur’an. As his methodology is thus inaccurate according to the Qur’an itself, and utterly rejected by genuine Islamic scholars, while he has every right to hold a personal opinion on the issue he has no right to use inaccurate scholarship to justify himself. Nor has he a right to patronise women by assuming that they believe blindly in such matters and follow opinions on a whim.

Choubachy also claims to be revolutionary with his discourse when, in fact, he’s only following the current militarised regime led by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, someone for whom he has shown open support. In January, Al-Sisi made a speech about Egypt needing a religious revolution, in an attempt to justify attacks on freedom of speech by banning public religious sermons. The secularisation of Egypt through a discourse aiming to rethink religion was not only approved by Al-Sisi, but also initiated by him, thus proving that Choubachy is not the revolutionary that he thinks he is; in fact, he is but a mere coward who chose to speak at a time when the Egyptian ruling class would endorse him. This explains why he has yet to question the unjust system in place in Egypt that subjugates and oppresses women. He has yet to, and most likely will not, speak about the police, Egyptian legislation or the ruling business classes which all demean women systematically. That’s why, rather than starting a women’s rights movement in Egypt, he’s burying its remains for the benefit of his personal, political and journalism agendas.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.