Covering heads and veiling poverty in Egypt

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 religion.

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.


  • Gihan Abou Zeid

    Gihan Abou Zeid is an Egyptian veteran of the human rights movement and an authority on in development in the Arab world. She is currently leading a nation-wide study of initiatives on violence against women as part of a larger attempt to present concrete recommendations to the Egyptian government and civil society. Gihan has 20 years of professional experience in research, training, editing and programme direction and management in gender, human rights and democracy. She has also participated in international research projects on various aspects of gender and development with women's associations, universities, UN agencies and civil society organisations. She has written two books and contributed to scholarly publications. Gihan is a technical adviser on women's political participation, special measures for enhancing women's political participation, youth polices in the Arab world and gender mainstreaming. She has always worked with a strong commitment to feminism and women's rights and has been actively engaged in women's networks, including four years as chair of the NGO's Forum For Women in Development. She is also an honorary member of a variety of youth and human rights initiatives in the Arab region. Gihan has been inviting as a speaker to tens of international and regional conferences on human rights, democracy and gender .

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5 thoughts on “Covering heads and veiling poverty in Egypt

  • Tony linked here saying, “From fashion tips to adult breastfeeding – rulings …”

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  • Facebook comments

    Selected comments from Mona Eltahawy’s Facebook:

    I wonder what the “free Hijab womens movement” in Denmark would say about this article :O)… well I’ll present it to some of them from my FB wall.

    It’s all about the context, Kristian. That essay I linked to is about Egypt and the pressures women there face to wear hijab.

    In Denmark, it’s more about the pressure NOT to wear the hijab.

    I support women’s freedom to choose to wear the hijab or not to wear the hijab. … Read More

    The niqab/burqa is a different matter altogether, as far as I’m concerned.

    Women who wear hijab is brainwashed to accept it, or forced to wear it so how come you support women’s “freedom” to wear it?

    Maged – if a woman chooses to wear it I support that choice. If they are forced to wear it, I condemn and oppose such force.

    As for brainwashing, I don’t agree with you.

    I wore hijab for nine years as a younger woman. I chose to wear it and I chose to take it off. Nobody brainwashed either decision.

    @Mona, I fully agree… and I for sure know that 95% of hjiab women in DK is free women. When I see young, active, well educated strong women in DK with Hijab, who will not shake hand with a man, no sit next to him in a bus etc…. I wonder how is it possible to be so dogmatic and fundamental, and what drives them. I have meet two of the “Abdol Hamid” … Læs meresisters… very inteligent and nice women. But why on earth do they make such a fuzz out of being muslims? I can’t really get it. The result of them demonstrating thier religion makes the Islamofobic even more fobic, and the lives of relaxed
    muslims more difficult. Am I missing the point?

    Kristian – thanks for clarifying.

    I can’t speak for the AbdelHamid sisters but when I wore hijab I shook hands with men and I know today many women who wear hijab who are not so dogmatic.

    Women wear hijab for various reasons – not all of them religious. Some choose, some are forced, some wear for God, some wear for fashion, some wear for identity, some wear because it’s more affordable than trying to keep up with trends.

    Interesting article! I found some parallels of it to my own life and others I know.

    At the start of me wearing the head scarf, I didn’t shake hands with men. I didn’t even shake hands with my superintendant and principle at my high school graduation. It took a while for me to trust men. It’s a safety precaution, someone holds your hand, and they can take you away! LOL … Read More
    These days, as a struggling Muslim (my own internal faith), I still cover my head, whether it’s a scarf, beanie, hat, or bandana and bit by bit, I do shake hands with men. I respect anyone’s choice to/not to wear it.

    When the article spoke about poverty, it reminded me of one of my roommates in Boston. With a tight income, no job, and raising a young child, she wore the scarf, but had expensive taste/style. 😛 It tickled me!

    I live by this verse of the Bible more than the Qur’an (for myself and no one else):

    “If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.” [1 Corinthians 11:6]

    For Aya the biblical verse was intended for the women who pray Only .. Aslo for maged , being a believer of the mass bleif don’t mean you are brainwashed it means that it got to you,,, you ‘chose’ the belif and stuck toit ” free choice”.. this what i think I’m not speaking in behalfof Mona but I do agree with her on the subject. I totaly respect women choice to wear Hijab and to take it off

    I think that brainwashing (@Maged) is not the matter here. The matter is : you are a girl, and you grow up. In some cultures, countries, the simple fact of being a woman means you have to hide your body. In other cultures, countries, nobody even imagine something like that and everything is ok. In the first kind of cultures, countries, you know … Read Morevery early that there is a censorship. You will control yourself before being censored, you will try to not give them reasons to make you problems. So, may be you think that it’s a choice to hide your body (@Mona???), but in fact I think you have a strategy, you prefer not to have crush and trouble, not to have to explain, to justify. The social pressure is very high…

    In the second kind of countries the problem is the identity, (@Kristian) the fear of losing your identity when you live far from your former home. There, there are many reasons : a reaction, or to try to show you are proud of your origin, or as a kind of provocation, and so on.
    But cultures are moving and people too. I believe in women intelligence J
    (My English is very bad…, sorry)

    Frida – what you are describing is called socialization and it is enacted differently in different socieites. The headscarf and the mini skirt are two sides of the same coin – women’s bodies.

    If you read my comments much earlier, you would see that I’ve given various reasons for why women wear headscarves. I too believe in women’s intelligence which is why I refuse to let a word like “brainwash” stand uncontested.


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