Friday, 8 May 2009

Lifting the veil is touchy topic in Egypt

By Nadia abou el Magd and Matt Bradley, Foreign Correspondents
The Egypt National News

CAIRO // Afaf al Sayed spent 10 years feeling like she was staring at life from inside a coffin. That is how she remembers the period between 1983 and 1992, when she wore a niqab, a variation on the Islamic veil worn by women that shrouds the entire face save for the eyes.

“There are small details that are still painful when I think about them after all those years,” said Ms al Sayed, 45, who is now the head of Heya, a feminist women’s organisation.

“I think during these years, I stopped looking at myself in the mirror, until one day, I did, and it was a horrible moment in my life,” she said. “I screamed at myself: ‘Who is this thing?’ I shut myself up in my room for three days, then I emerged after taking off these black things and the life I was burying myself behind. I felt born again, and started enjoying freedom, life and light again.”

Ms al Sayed’s decision is one that Egypt’s ministry of awqaf, or religious endowments, would like to propagate. Since late 2008, the ministry has pushed a quiet and controversial campaign to “educate” women that the niqab is a cultural norm inherited from pre-Islamic Bedouin traditions, rather from any religious obligation.

But opponents say the ministry’s programme amounts to a thinly veiled attempt to pander to political pressure from the West, where the niqab has emerged as a symbol of Islam’s oppression of women.

Common to both arguments is the perception that cultural coercion from abroad – religious programming beamed in by satellite from the Gulf states on one hand and liberal cultural values from the West on the other – is conspiring to influence Egypt’s traditionally moderate practice of the Islamic faith.

“What’s happening in Egypt is the law of American city hall. It’s being translated and enforced on all aspects of life,” said Sheikh Youssef al Badry, a conservative Islamic scholar. “The niqab is a must. They don’t want the niqab because they want to spread prostitution and illicit desires so that society will be disrupted.”

Ministry officials say the niqab’s popularity in Egypt comes directly from satellite channels, such as Al Nas, Al Rahma and Al Hikma, whose “satellite sheikhs” evangelise a more austere form of religious practice throughout the region.

Afal al Sayed, 45, head of the Egyptian feminist organisation Heya, wore a niqab for 10 years before deciding to stop.

“Unfortunately, this impression came through a cultural invasion, through satellite stations that spread Wahhabi or Gulf thought,” said Salem Abdel Gelil, an official at the awqaf ministry and the head of the niqab education campaign.

“They disseminate day and night that the niqab is a religious obligation.”

Mr Gelil’s campaign began late last year, when the ministry published a booklet, to be distributed throughout the country’s 50,000 government-managed mosques. The book’s publication followed another controversial decision in March 2008 by the ministry of health that required more than 9,000 “Munaqabat” health professionals in state-owned hospitals to expose their faces and hands at work.

Now, Mr Gelil is taking a more hands-on approach to spreading his message. In the past two weeks, he has conducted two “question-and-answer” sessions with the 14 munaqabat women who work at his own ministry. So far, none of the women has hung up their niqabs, but Mr Gelil remains sanguine.

“The result has been promising, thank God,” he said. “The 14 women who wear niqab and work in the ministry declared that this is a tradition, not a religion. They are still in the niqab because the role of the ministry is not to tell people not to wear it, but to raise awareness.”

If Mr Gelil’s idea of “raising awareness” means convincing women to expose their faces in public, however, he may have a difficult time.

The niqab is not an Egyptian tradition, but wearing it is a decision many women do not take lightly.

“I took the veil out of love for God and to please him. I was taught that the body of a Muslim woman is awrah [private] and should be covered,” said Hoda al Bendari, 39, who has worn the niqab for three years and who works as a manicurist for veiled women. “No book, not the president himself, could convince me to take off my niqab, which will be taken off only after I die.”

Women such as Ms al Bendari can find strong textual justification for their decision, said Sheikh al Badry, who emphasised that Islam imposes its strictures on no one. Muslim women come to the niqab willingly after the rigorous study of their faith, he said.

Among several justifications for the niqab that can be found in the hadiths, the Prophet Mohammed’s sayings and deeds, one states that Muslim women should expose their faces and hands while visiting Mecca for the Haj or pilgrimage. The passage strongly implies that such body parts should be covered at all other times, said Sheikh al Badry.

Beyond such “proof”, he said, Muslim thought teaches that women are weaker than men, who will tend to prey on women’s lust.

“Women are awrah and they are weak human beings,” said Sheikh al Badry. “The man is as a wolf, who, when he is alone with a woman, may hunt her. That’s why Islam goes with the principle that prevention is better than the cure.”

Other Egyptian religious authorities support the ministry’s efforts while acknowledging the challenges inherent in any government-led attempt to alter deeply entrenched cultural norms.

Gamal al Banna, the younger brother of Hassan al Banna who founded Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, said Islam should be practised in the way it was conceived: as a force of liberation for women.

“Neither hijab [veil] nor niqab are from God. Quite simply, hijab was present 2,000 years before Islam from the laws of Hammurabi,” he said, referring to a set of laws from the ancient Babylonian empire. “That is why we say that hijab was imposed on Islam, and not that Islam imposed the hijab.”

Mr al Banna said the hadiths offered by Sheikh al Badry – whom he said “should be put in a museum” – are spurious because they are not taken from the Quran.

“This is all nonsense,” said Mr al Banna, adding that the Quran mentions the word “hijab” only once to refer to the curtains that divided the Prophet Mohammed’s home from the mosque to which it was connected. “The niqab is a shame. It covers and destroys women’s personalities. How can she work or do anything with this cursed niqab?”

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