Covering heads and veiling poverty

Gihan Abou Zeid

In , Hijabless women are becoming a shrinking and marginalised minority who have to keep their bare heads down.

3 September 2009

Arabic version

After dressing hurriedly, I asked my daughter if my clothes were appropriate for a public occasion in a poor Cairo neighbourhood. Smiling patiently, she told me: “You look great. Now you have to leave immediately.”

As I pushed open the door of the lift on my way out of the building, I ran into my teenage neighbour who is a year, or even a few months, younger than my daughter. “Hello, Ramadan Karim,” I said to him, smiling.

He did not answer, and mumbled to himself as if he'd seen something sinful: “A'ouz billah (I seek refuge in God).” Among the 30 or so women who live in our building, only two do not cover their heads or veil their faces, my daughter and I.

Women who bare their heads have become a minority in Egypt as a wave calling on women to cover up has swept through the country. Egypt's streets are now teeming with colourful headdresses but the black ones are casting a longer shadow.

A superficial reading of the phenomenon would reveal a rise in religiosity. A deeper analysis would uncover a wide range of economic, political and social dimensions which differ from one class to the next.

The hijab has lifted a burden off the shoulders of the poorest families, where it is used not only to cover the head but also to conceal, or at least disguise, poverty. The traditional dress, the galabiya or jilbab, is available in the market for reasonable prices. In addition, thanks to its bagginess and diplomacy in dealing with the female form, the dress can be shared by the women of the family and complemented with inexpensive scarves in a broad range of colours.

The headscarf also saves on hair care, not only in terms of money but also in terms of the time spared by women who barely have the luxury to sleep between the multiple jobs and functions they must perform.

In poorer areas, the hijab also affords its wearer a certain measure of respect as a “pious woman”. This is appreciated by the local men and reassures the women. By dressing in this way, a woman is sending out a concise and elegant message that she is adhering to the commandments of her faith.

But the prevalence of the headdress in all the poorer areas and in most middle class households raises the question of whether the hijab still carries the same religious significance.

In one of Cairo's major hotels, I met Iman, a bright young woman who served drinks there. In accordance with the norms of the tourism sector, she was wearing a short skirt and tight clothes. But as the clock struck midnight, she underwent a major transformation. Before me stood the same woman but with her hair covered and her body concealed in a far more modest dress.

Iman informed me that she was on her way home. She told me that she didn't want to lead a two-faced existence and that she was not happy with her false appearance at work or in the neighbourhood where she lives.

But Iman, who grew up in one of Cairo's working class districts, knows very well that she could lose a lot if she rebelled against the local mores and refused to cover her head. In order to protect herself and her family, she wears the hijab.

Meanwhile, at the hotel, she needs to safeguard her livelihood, and so removes her headscarf. And between baring and hiding their hair, women's identities are taken away from them, until they lose them with time, and become unable to answer the simple question: why do you cover your hair?

The hijab no longer carries the same religious significance it previously possessed. In fact, it now resembles a kind of new national dress, invented against a religious backdrop. Different rival groups compete in investing in it. Some Islamic groups see in its increasing acceptance a silent vote of confidence in their social success. Domestic fashion houses see in the spread of the hijab an appreciation of their talent for designing an endless assortment of headdresses. For their part, Egyptian families are proud of their conservative daughters.

Therefore, this unofficial national dress which expresses “conformity” carries no religious significance. Today, the pious have to go a step further to stand out in not standing out by donning a baggy black over-garment which completely conceals both the hair and the body. This attire is an extreme expression of conformity with the commandments of .

Women who have reached this stage do not recognise the piety of their sisters who merely cover their hair and find those who go around bare-headed so alarming that they pray for their salvation.

In this dress hierarchy, the weakest are the women who bare their hair because of their shrinking ranks. Moreover, their resistance to the hijab prompts others to exert peer pressure on them, reinforcing their sense of isolation. In fact, the status of women who do not cover up has grown to resemble the ostracisation experienced by minorities.

So my silence in the face of a teenager's disapproval can be seen as the kind of prudence exercised by small minorities throughout the ages. I'm just keeping my bare head down!

Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Diab. © Gihan Abou Zeid. All rights reserved.

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