I’ve been delaying my next post for several reasons:
1. Alexandria/life in Alexandria has been extremely busy.
2. It’s rare to get a consistent internet connection here.
3. I’m pretty lazy I think.
But this TIME online special on “Islam’s Soft Revolution” that is being led by Cairo women has forced me to write.
Why? Because if I read this in the States, I maaaaaaay have said, “Oh wow, it’s pretty cool that they’re covering Egyptian Muslim women, it’s cool that they’ve got a whole photo essay with hijabis.” And that would have also been a surficial, naive response but I would have been pretty grateful that TIME online would do that, considering the lack of positive images of hijabis in the US media.
But I’m not in the US. I’m here in Egypt, I’m living in a place where 80% of the women wear hijab, an Arab country that often feels more like just a Muslim country instead of an Arab country. A place where, as someone who is roughly a Muslim — roughly — I feel very out of place in this Muslim country because I don’t wear hijab. The rise of hijab here in Egypt, which is something that our Arabic instructors talk about a lot here, is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are several theories floating around that attempt to explain it but I’m not really convinced by any of them — there’s gotta be something else happening in this place that has made the hijab/the tar7a the hottest item on the streets of Ibrahimiyya. Anyways, here are a few that I’ve heard:
- It’s a class thing. Women wear hijab to hide their class status and blend in as opposed to being uncovered and having your class be more apparent by way of your hair, clothing, etc. Modesty as a function of your class status and not a choice.
- After the death of Sadat and the release of the Brotherhood folks that he had imprisoned, the Muslim Brotherhood had a much greater influence on Egyptian society and thus pulled it in a very conservative direction.
- The lack of a subculture here in Egypt – this one doesn’t have me fully convinced but the idea of a visible counterculture is pretty interesting. Came across this idea in an article by Osama Diab.
- According to some people I was talking to, mostly people from the higher social classes, the hijab is just a facade. It doesn’t mean that they are more religious per se, its just a fad (a fifteen year long fad, but a fad nonetheless). This is also coming from non-hijabis.
- I’ve also been told that if I don’t want men to 3akis (verbally harass) me on the streets, I should cover up or wear hijab. So wearing it as a deterrent from sexually deprived men is another suggestion.
- There are more, I’ll add them as I go along. I hope to virtually ponder out loud on this topic some more, it’s really complex.
ANYWAYS, so what’s interesting about this TIME photo essay is several things. First, as I believe and as I hope that others also believe, it is very problematic. It presents these “modern” Muslim women as if it is a grand suprise that they wear the hijab AND do karate. As if it’s a huge surprise that a woman wearing hijab can live in the 21st century -literally and figuratively. It’s really condescending to the women in it, condescending to a Egyptian society which has been in the “21st century” just as long as any Western country. It’s condescending to the niqabis at our university that speak better English than many Americans that I know and are competing at the highest levels in their respective fields or the hijabi doctors in our dorm that give us Americans a proper diagnosis for whatever random illness we’ve picked up in less than a minute. It’s absurd to be “surprised” about these things and it proves how little progress American media has made.
The first image, about Dalia Ziada, is not only newsworthy but deserves an article of it’s own – not because she’s wearing hijab but because she is an activist doing important work in a place where it is very difficult to be active on really any issues. But even the subtitle beneath her picture is condescending and trivializing: “Activist in a Veil”. Seriously? You’re suprised by an “activist in a veil”? Have you seen ANY protest at the University of Michigan campus? Any campus at that? Any protest in the Arab world? To essentialize is to pretty much define a group by their “essence”. There’s a fine line between humanizing and essentializing – this piece has not only crossed the line but is doing so proudly while the editors of TIME are probably patting themselves on the back for releasing such a “cutting edge” piece. Try harder, TIME.
Here’s the info about Dalia: Dalia Ziada, a champion of women’s rights and free speech, translated a comic-book history of Martin Luther King into Arabic in order to promote civil disobedience. She is also the organizer of Cairo’s first human rights film festival. When authorities shut down the movie theater she had rented for the affair, she moved the entire opening night proceedings to a boat on the Nile, where the films could be shown beyond the reach of the law.