02.23.07

What’s behind the veil?

Posted in Society, Travel at 8:42 by RjZ

Hijab means to veal, conceal or cover and it essentially refers to the head covering that Muslim women wear. Typically, the simple head and neck covering scarf is known as hijab while the face cover is part of a niqab and cloaks and other forms of dress such as the burqa are local variations in the muslim world of feminine Muslim dress.

According to USC-MCA Compendium of Muslim texts, “women wear the hijab because Allah told them to:

“O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or are among men). That is better in order that they may be known (to be Muslims) and not annoyed…” (Qur’an 33:59)



Jeans jacket and hijab

The Qur’an and the Hadith (the oral traditions of Mohammad) give more details of women’s and men’s dress for Muslims. First, women should not appear as men. Second, Muslims should distinguish themselves from unbelievers and third, clothing should be modest and not gain others attention. The first point was clear from virtually all women in Egypt. The primary difference between scarf wearing westerners and Egyptian women was how feminine the Egyptians looked regardless of their clothes. My modestly dressed traveling partner was very obviously western to the locals. While her head was always covered, she wore hiking clothes and a modest loose fitting shirt. She fit the modesty requirement well, but her clothes told everyone she was no Muslim and perhaps worse, she wasn’t dressed much differently than I, a man! Just the same, Egyptians seem to appreciate her modesty and she enjoyed keeping Egyptian dust and pollution out of her hair.

Overwhelmingly, Egyptian women don’t meet the requirements either! Sure, a good 80 – 90% did, indeed, wear the hijab, but the vast majority of them wore the headscarf over tight-fitting western clothes. Many of the fashions were obviously modified by the requirements of modesty, but form fitting clothes were more the rule than the exception from Cairo to Aswan. Maybe 10% of women wore a burqa and/or niqab (the complete face covering) but one Cairene woman that we met claimed that most of these people were probably from Saudi Arabia. While she very much enjoyed donning the traditional clothing during her recent hajj (her pilgrimage to Mecca) she claimed she’d never wear such things during her regular job as a dentist at home.

It is difficult not to see the hijab and niqab as a little bit oppressive to women, even though those wearing them won’t tell you that they are. While women must hide their beautiful hair from men and each other, they still try to look beautiful, often with decorated head scarfs (technically, that’s against the hadith teachings), and quite a bit of makeup. There’s no question that seeing the world through a veil restricts women’s view, even if it may offer valued security. Furthermore, men seem to be under no such requirement. Certainly some men, perhaps as much as a quarter of them, wore traditional gallibaya, a long robe and small skull-cap, but those clothes are much less restrictive. The rest of the men, young and old would be at home in most of Europe complete with torn jeans.

Perhaps the veil offers Middle Eastern women an escape from the pressures of meeting the standards of rail-thin super-models. Certainly, it offers a respite from leering eyes of strangers, but judging from the billboards and advertisements around the city, Egyptian men and women are exposed to their fair share of gorgeous models in very little clothing yielding the same, nearly impossible, goals of beauty for women (and men) to live up to.

It’s not an easy question to answer. Of course, many women will prefer the hijab and even those that don’t, will find it easy to wear in a culture that grows up this way. Men remark that women look more beautiful in a burqa, even though they can’t actually see them at all, because their modesty is so appealing. Are the women, who feel more comfortable behind the veil, saying so because of the pressure of society to remain covered, or because they really prefer the anonymity? Are they claiming that the veil offers women a freedom that women in the West can’t easily enjoy or are they merely suffering from a victim mentality: knowing there is no escape they begin to enjoy the prison? One thing is sure, this book is not so easy to judge by its cover.

1 Comment »

  1. Traveling Hypothesis » I don’t care what you wear, unless you want to buy something said,

    June 25, 2007 at 13:50

    [...] perplexed about what is right and reasonable for religious and cultural practices. As I wrote here, in cultures such as Egypt where it is the standard, women don’t actually abide very strictly [...]

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