It was a risky—and frightening—experiment. Taxis refused to stop for me, but male drivers kept pulling over to compliment my eyes (the only part of my body on show) and inviting me into their vehicles. Others just stared. Why the unwelcome attention? Because I was wearing a niqab, the full face veil, on the streets of Cairo. Egypt may be a Muslim country, but its government places numerous restrictions on those who make this religious commitment. That, however, may be about to change in the wake of a decision earlier this month by Egypt’s High Administrative Court.
A special chamber of the court ruled on June 9 that the American University in Cairo (AUC) could not bar a female scholar who wears the niqab from using university facilities. That decision upheld a 2001 ruling by a lower court, which cited personal and religious freedom as the reason that Iman al-Zainy could not be barred from campus for wearing the garment. (Zainy was pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Egypt's prestigious Islamic institution Al-Azhar University, but had enjoyed library privileges at the AUC for over a decade.) She has since completed her doctorate, but her lawyers say she continued her legal battle as a matter of principle.
Egypt’s battle against the niqab has a long history. Authorities originally banned students from wearing it to school in 1994, saying that it violated security standards. Dozens of pupils were suspended in the decade that followed. In nearly all cases however, the court overturned the decision and allowed the girls to return to class. More recently, Cairo University, with the highest enrollment in Egypt, has allowed students to attend wearing the niqab. However, the American University stayed firm, refusing to permit even the niqab-wearing mothers of graduates to attend the commencement ceremony, according to some students. (A more lenient attitude is taken toward the hijab, which covers the hair but leaves the face visible.) The university says the decision is not a religious one, but was made “because all members of the AUC community have a basic right to know with whom they are dealing, whether in class, labs or anywhere else on campus.”
Certainly, the concerns run the gamut from women using the face veil to cheat in exams—be it by stashing away crib sheets or trading places with other students—to young men using it as a disguise to sneak into the girls’ dormitory. Then there are the political concerns; across the region, the increasing influence of Islamic parties poses a viable threat to the old, Western- friendly boys’ club of Arab rulers. In Egypt’s last parliamentary election, the Muslim Brotherhood—which is officially banned—nonetheless earned 20 percent of the seats. Though party members are still subject to mass arrests and intense security protocol, bit by bit, its Islamic agenda is gaining ground, as is evident from decisions such as the niqab ruling.
Still, many activists caution, it is hasty to claim this particular ruling as an Islamist victory. “The positive aspect of the decision is that the court refused to take a moral or religious position on the niqab and merely confined itself to upholding Muslim women's right to personal liberty and nondiscrimination,” says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Certainly, the decision is a sign of the times. Just 30 years ago, young women attended Cairo University wearing miniskirts and the latest Paris fashions. They strolled along the beaches of Alexandria in skimpy swimsuits. The hijab was often perceived as a social-status indicator; women of the upper and middle classes rarely veiled at a young age and those who did usually observed more fashionable interpretations of the religious head-covering.
All of that changed along with the politics of the region. The Iranian Islamic revolution caused a religious shakeup that leaked into the Arab countries to its west. Government crackdowns on Islamic parties grew fierce as the country’s poor turned more to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood for support. Recently, the war in Iraq set off a tidal wave of anti-Western sentiment across the region, causing millions to embrace their own traditions and beliefs more proudly than ever before.
Ironically, despite the conservative trend that has engulfed the nation, the face veil is viewed by many Muslims as an “un-Egyptian” tradition and in many places, the practice is shunned. In fact, one of the stereotypes that exist among some communities is an association between the niqab and prostitution. “Prostitution is certainly one of the stereotypes for both hijab and niqab—as though these women hide behind it,” says Pakinam Amer, a Cairo-based journalist. “However, many also associate it with extremism, as well as terrorism, even here in Egypt.”
That was certainly my experience. I had decided to experiment with wearing the niqab after an upscale Cairo restaurant tried to keep out a colleague wearing only the hijab. (We were eventually seated, though my party was cooped up in a dark corner where they hoped no one would see us.) After just a single day, I discovered how unpleasant and terrifying it could be. Aside from all the unwelcome attention, I also had to take into account the fact that my action could have been interpreted as a mockery or blasphemy—and the repercussions could have been severe.
Despite the obstacles and harassment, any casual observer on Egyptian streets can see that the number of women wear the niqab is growing. Nor does it seem to be confined to specific social classes or ages. Some women insist that it is nothing more than an “outfit.” One even suggested to me that if young women in the West can mimic the fashions of pop icons “like Britney Spears,” she too should be able to dress like her icon—the wife of the Prophet Mohammed. “We are not coming from a repressed household or a repressed society,” says Sarah El-Meshad, a graduate of the American University in Cairo who took on the face veil after graduation. “This is just a little something extra I am doing for my religion, but I am no different from any other girl.” For now, though, that’s not an argument the Egyptian government seems willing to accept.