Hijab debates are on the rise, yet again, in Egypt. As usual, they are initiated by the ruling class who are provoking a national debate for profit. Businesses in tourist areas of Egypt such as Sharm Al-Sheikh are banning women who wear the hijab from entering their restaurants or leisure centres, as their clothing, it is alleged, ruins the “style” of the business. Oblivious to the fact that their discrimination towards hijab wearing women is unnecessary – the pluralistic nature of most of the western world which such people admire demonstrates that men and women of all faiths practice their beliefs through their clothing choices – it is also feeding into the power dynamic that subjugates women. In fact, the hijab ban is part of a wider war against women.
Women in Egypt have taken social media by storm to express their anger at what is happening. Using tweets and blog posts they have been talking about their experiences and expressing their reluctance to take off the hijab, despite society’s increasing pressure on women who chose to wear it. Most importantly, many express their fear for the future and the fact that they can no longer feel safe walking around in their country without social trends dictating the way that they should look and dress.
When looking at the bigger picture of the way that women’s bodies are policed in Egypt, it’s clear that there is a culture of oppression, perpetuated by companies such as Hayada Lebanese Restaurant, which have harassed women over their clothing. However, the corporate policing of the hijab should not really be a surprise. After all, Hala El-Malki and Ghada El-Tawil lost their jobs as TV anchors for wearing the hijab on Egyptian state TV in 2002, under the pretext that their choice of clothing was a political statement.
A lot of comparisons are drawn between the way that veiled women are increasingly being targeted in Egypt and Abrar Shahin, a veiled Palestinian-American girl who was voted best dressed at her high school in New Jersey; and Noor Tagouri, the first veiled news anchor in America. According to Yara Sherif Bassiouny, founder of the “Respect My Veil” campaign in Egypt, “The anti-hijab attitude was always there but not that much as this year or it was not that obvious.” She also reiterated to me the importance of noting that not all luxury resorts have imposed this ban; nevertheless, despite the fight that women are putting up through their campaigns, there have been some who have been pressured to take off the hijab.
The levels of sexual harassment in Egypt are also linked to this issue. Not because of a woman’s decision to wear modest or revealing clothing, but because monitoring their clothing reinforces the idea that both the state and the ruling class in general care little for the wellbeing of women. A study carried out by UN Women in 2013 showed that 99.3 per cent of women in Egypt have been sexually harassed at some point in their lives. The International Federation for Human Rights also released a report in May, highlighting the hypocrisy of the Egyptian government, which excuses the systematic abuse of women in the country. The reported included incidents of women being sexually abused in Cairo in front of high-ranking officers of the interior ministry and the riot police on 25 May 2005. It also highlighted the fact that mob rapes have actually increased since the 2013 Al-Sisi coup.
And yet, the mass media still speaks with pride about the anti-sexual harassment law passed on 4 June even though it is quite obvious that no law can break the inherent values embedded in a society that oppresses women. There is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” culture that shames women for wearing either too much or too little, or pressures them into considering their clothing to suit social demands.
It is also important to remember that such laws are futile in a context in which the police regard sexual harassment to be a private matter when done by a family member; or would be quick to blame women for the abuse they have suffered by interrogating them about what happened, what they were wearing at the time or if they did anything to “provoke” an attack. Telling women that they cannot enter a venue because their hijab is objectifying them and dehumanising them is the same as the policeman who asks a woman what she was wearing when she reports sexual abuse, which is a common crime of which both veiled and non-veiled girls and women are victims in Egypt. Both scenarios blame women, victimise women and treat them as burdens in society. Because this hijab harassment also has an ideological element to it, it simultaneously – and perversely – fuels Islamophobia in a country where 80-90 per cent of the population are Muslims.
It’s important to take this issue to its ideological roots, as well as focus on gender-based violence, in which Al-Sisi is currently pushing a form of nationalisation of Islamic thought. In a bid to defeat the Muslim Brotherhood, he understands that he needs to depart from what the majority of scholars throughout Islamic history have recognised to be legitimate opinions and compete with them ideologically as well as militarily and politically.
The companies partaking in this are oblivious to the fact that although it is practicing Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab and their families who are subject to discrimination, their corporate policy in this matter is contributing to the overall systematic oppression of women worldwide. This issue goes beyond Egypt, as many Islamophobes in other parts of the world, including the West, would use this as leverage to abuse hijab-wearing women. As the ruling class, they recognise their power to change public opinion and when they abuse it, thinking it will only affect veiled Muslim women, it is actually affecting all women across the country and is now spilling across Egypt’s borders.
The irresponsibility of the members of the ruling class to perpetuate this war on women has to be looked at from an ideological perspective. They do not want to allow Islamic dress to be prevalent in their resorts because they want to promote an image of what they believe is a modernised Egypt. In reality, though, their “image” reflects not only a crackdown on religious opinions that the state does not approve of, but also highlights the ongoing war against women.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.