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Uncovering the context
In the wake of the controversy generated by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni’s suggestion that the increasing number of veiled women in Egypt was a sign of "regression", Al-Ahram Weekly asked two leading cultural commentators how they interpreted the subsequent furore. The importance of national dialogue, in the absence of which we lapse into a conflict that
Friday, December 1,2006 00:00
by Abdelwahab Elmessiri, Alahram Weekly

In the wake of the controversy generated by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni’s suggestion that the increasing number of veiled women in Egypt was a sign of "regression", Al-Ahram Weekly asked two leading cultural commentators how they interpreted the subsequent furore.


The importance of national dialogue, in the absence of which we lapse into a conflict that depletes all energy, cannot be overemphasised; hence calls for change, for reform of the constitution, for new parties to be established, for emergency laws to be annulled so all political trends can participate in the democratic process without fear and without attempting either to retain power for life. I also wish to express admiration for Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni. I am aware of the efforts expended by his ministry to restore Ancient Egyptian, Coptic and Islamic monuments, and to safeguard antiquities from theft.

Click to view caption
Mahmoud Mukhtar, Egypt Awakening (pink granite), 1919-1928. Mukhtar’s statue, which once stood in Ramses Square, and is now located in front of Cairo University, was from its inception viewed as the visual symbol, par excellence, of the nahda project.

Fiddling amid the flames


Like him, and like many from my generation, I know little about jurisprudential opinion on the issue of the hijab. Referring to jurisprudential opinion is not a matter of asserting anyone’s monopoly over jurisprudence but a matter of rigour, the importance of which, as a literary critic, I am well aware. In my field, without rigour, meaning knowledge of different approaches, theories and techniques of criticism, opinions can be no more than amateur impressionism. And if the need for rigour is such in literary criticism, then how much more so when it comes to religious jurisprudence?

Hence I sought the opinion of a friend, not a man of religion but better informed on such issues than me, about the issue of the hijab. Islamic juridical tradition, he said, asserts that "when a woman reaches the age of menstruation the only parts of her body that might be revealed are her face and palms. This view is generally supported by the following Quranic injunction: ’And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their head coverings over their bosoms. And let them not display [more of] their charms to any but their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands’ fathers, or their sons ... " (Al-Nur: 31). There are other Quranic verses (Al-Ahzab: 33 and 59) that are in keeping with the above injunctions.

"These verses", my friend continued, "refer to the values of modesty and decency as opposed to the arrogant physical flaunting of the pagan era, which reduces woman to her body, and underscores her physical attractiveness [sex appeal in modern parlance], thereby cancelling out her humanness, her personality, as well as her social role as a mother and a wife." As the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood suggested, everyone knows that the hijab is an Islamic obligation, yet the issue has taken on exaggerated proportions. Egypt, he went on, has bigger and more pressing issues to address, such as poverty, corruption and tyranny.

Given that the minister, like me, is not well-versed in religious matters I fully believe him when he says he was not passing a religious judgment. In which framework, then, are we understand his statement? I think I may not be off the mark when I claim he was passing a cultural judgement. Analysis of contemporary Egyptian discourse tells us that "backwardness" and "regression" -- precisely like nahda, "renaissance", and istinara, "enlightenment" -- are non-religious terms that belong to a social and cultural framework. This is the context within which we should discuss the statement.

Those who describe the hijab as a symptom of backwardness, the minister being one of them, weigh their words carefully. They speak of the freedom of expression and of creativity as absolutes, wielding them in the face of anyone who objects to any opinion. Society, however, is a complex entity, with a consciousness of its own that takes precedence over the individual no matter the degree of creativity of which the latter is capable. The individual belongs to society and not the other way round. Yet some radical intellectuals rush headlong to embrace the call for absolute artistic freedom without grasping its anti-human philosophical import.

Those who defend freedom of expression and construe art as an absolute withhold the designation of absolute from religion and moral values. They conceive of religion as a private matter, isolated from the world of politics, economics and sociology. Hence, when a given phenomenon is addressed, it is treated as either a religious phenomenon or a non-religious one, designations that originate from a definition of secularism as the separation between religion and state.

This is a crude view of the world and of human nature, an intricate, complex thing. The religious is interwoven with the political, the economic and the psychological. When a Palestinian freedom fighter attacks an Israeli settlement are his motives religious, or are they political, economic and social? The answer is that his motives are complex. He is impelled by a combination of things.

Those who separate religion from other aspects of life believe its appearance in public life is a symptom of backwardness. Their frame of reference is the Western secular, as well as the so-called Arab nahda, project. Think of the ill-fated proposal to celebrate the bicentennial of the French Expedition to Egypt -- i.e., the invasion of Egypt by the military forces of the French Revolution -- considered by some the starting point of advancement towards Western enlightenment: the promoters of the celebration did not seem to realise that the French Expedition to Egypt was the beginning of the Western colonisation of our country that continues to try and undermine our heritage and exploit us for its own benefit. They overlooked the two revolutions against the French sparked from Al-Azhar, just as they overlooked Sulayman Al-Halabi, who assassinated Kléber, who had taken over from Napoleon as commander of the French occupation forces, and the Azhar scholars who refused to collaborate with the occupiers. They isolate the occupation from its historical and social context; when a scholar does that, he or she can impose any interpretation on the phenomenon under study. Thus they turned French Expedition into a sign of advancement and the resistance, it only follows, into a sign of backwardness, which is not too different from the West’s referring nowadays to the Palestinian resistance as "terrorism", and designating Hizbullah, Hamas and Jihad as "terrorist organisations".

The promoters of this discourse do something similar when they turn the hijab into a symbol of backwardness. They isolate it from its social, historical and human context, having derived the signifiers of advancement and backwardness from a Western model. But are things that simple? Take, for example, a non-veiled young woman who frequents the Gezira Club, where she plays tennis in shorts and swims in a bathing suit, goes dancing at discotheques, is fluent in a foreign language and speaks Arabic pidginised with English or French. She indulges in consumerism on a grand scale and knows nothing of the real Egypt, the Egypt of the poor, the struggling and the wretched. She does not participate in any political movement. Is such a young woman more advanced than a veiled one who lives in the true Egypt, amid its people, aware of their concerns, one who is politically active, contributes to building the nation and does not indulge in the rampant consumerism that has Egyptian society in its grip? Whenever I revisit Damanhour, my hometown, I find civil society there active, indeed thriving. Many of those who are in charge of NGOs, some of which are undeclared, are veiled young women. I am familiar with the work of one of these NGOs which specialises in providing dialysis equipment for kidney failure patients. The veiled girls who run the NGO obtain funds for their project from the prosperous and also from relatives resident in the US. Who, then, is more advanced, the unveiled young woman or these veiled young women?

The religious is interwoven with the political, economic, social and historical, and the veil must be considered in this context. While many consider it a religious obligation we must not forget that it has also become a social convention. Every society has its own dress code, a language of costume defined by society and not by individuals. This code determines what is to be revealed or concealed of the body, and the appropriate attire for given occasions. Was there any girl who had the guts to reveal her stomach, whether in the East or the West, a decade ago? And is there anyone who would now dare object to this style of dress? The complaint made by some women that they find themselves obliged to wear the veil because of "religious" pressure may be valid; they should bear in mind, though, that whereas these pressures may originally have been religious in nature they have now acquired the dimension of custom, which is what makes for the social pressure.

The hijab is an expression of adhering to one’s identity, as well as a form of resistance to imperialism. There is an economic aspect to hijab, which is undoubtedly a rejection of the consumerist model. When my wife and I returned from a sojourn in the US in 1979, the Open Door policy had overtaken Egypt. Our combined monthly salary was approximately LE180. When my wife went to buy a handbag and a pair of shoes, she found they cost LE150. Her comment was that girls now had only two solutions in face of inflation: either they could resort to the Thai solution (prostitution) or hijab ; she predicted they would opt for the latter. Although she identified the economic dimension of hijab, she did not reduce the phenomenon to it. Egyptian women chose the Islamic solution because Islam is the frame of reference of this society (as a system of belief for Muslims and as a civilisation for both Muslims and non-Muslims). It is this frame of reference that protected the country from colonial and consumerist infiltration.

To reduce the hijab to its religious dimension and isolate it from social dimensions reveals the analytical shortcomings of those who turn it into a symptom of backwardness. When I was a young boy in Damanhour I was dazzled by the neon lights of Cairo and would count how many new neon signs I could spot in my town as a sign of advancement. When I grew up I realised, of course, how reductive and naïve my criterion was. As St Paul the Apostle says in his first epistle to the Corinthians "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things" (I Corinthians 13: 11). Why then should we not mature and dispense with reductive criteria, contemplating our reality with eyes not glazed over by foreign fogs that blind us from perceiving the rich, complex truth in all its interwoven material and non- material dimensions?

* The writer is a professor emeritus of English literature at Ain Shams University. His publications include Mawsu’at Al-Yahud wa-l-Yahudiyya wa-l-Sahyuniyya ( Encyclopaedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism ).

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