Back to the old feminist debate: Hijab and the Egyptian revolution

by Maha Al Aswad

After the revolution, we are back again to the old feminists debates. My Friend Fatma Emam and I had an interesting discussion about the participation of women in the revolution, especially in Tahrir. After the discussion we went back to our homes and I couldn’t feel for one second that she was offended with anything I said. Apparently she did and she blogged about it.  I appreciate her devotion for her ideas and the way she expresses herself. The discussion was so interesting,  so I decided to share it here.

Between quotations below is the blog post she wrote. You can read it on her blog: Brownie. I tried to write a quick reply to clarify my position. All comments are welcome, especially, of course, from my dear Friend, Fatma. I forgot to mention- I am the ” young feminist” she is referring to in her post.

In my last post women in the revolution I classified the women in the Jan 25 revolution according to how covered they are, but I thought that the non veiled and the causal veiled and the ultra religious veiled constitute different categories .
However when a fellow young feminist expressed her astonishment about the role of the veiled women in the revolution and that there broke many taboos socially and religiously , I was offended because she had a very orientalist view of feminism, that veil is a constraint on the agency not only the sensuality and sexuality . I was also offended when I was doing an interview with international journalist and she asked me if I was veiled or not because I am an Islamic feminist.
As I felt offended I felt is about time to talk about veil, although it is a very old topic, we can debate whether it is religious obligation or socially and culturally obligated custom.
I can talk on my own experience I was veiled when I was 15 by my own free well, then I was introduced to the literature of the Islamic feminism in my mid twenties and I started believing that the veil is not religious obligation and that belief was strengthened when I meet my mentor Prof Amina Wadud who practice in her life wearing and unwearing the veil according to the situation, so she accept that it was stated in Quran and Sunna but they are not an obligation we will be accountable in front of Allah.i think it is so naive to think that a women is lacking agency only for wearing veil or she is liberated only for un wearing it.
I am still wearing my veil, it might look awkward because I lost the valid justification of wearing it which is the religious and I can fight, if I want to overcome the social obligation but I feel really that I am prevented from doing or being whatever I want and add to this that I knew my womanhood with a veil on my head.
sometimes i hate it , sometimes i feel i am caliming my rights to choose what i want with it , but in everyday i wish i would not be calssified by an inch of clothes

Personally, and no offense intended, I am totally anti-Hijab, but I respect women who CHOOSE to wear it. My argument wasn’t about the legitimacy of Hijab, and I am not being stereotypical about those who are wearing it or having an “orientalist” view of feminism. But I have been involved in social work in Egypt for a long time and it happens that youth and young people were the focus of my work. Hijab comes with certain ideas and constraints formulated mainly by interpretations of Islam and supported by social constraints. In many cases covering your hair means also covering your mind and believing you have limitations to what you are capable of doing as a human being. It has something to do with reinforcing gender roles, not eliminating them. I wish all those who wear Hijab are Islamic feminists who can see Hijab as a separate category, irrelevant to shaping their own personality- and here I mean the social constraints that come with it.

I will tell you about a situation that happened during the January revolution. I went to a Mosque in Tahrir to use the toilet in the festivals room attached to it. I found a long queue of ladies who were wearing Hijab, talking to each others in groups while waiting their turn. I heard a lady then reminding everyone about the “silent march” planned later that day in Tahrir only for women.  She further explained that it is silent because women shouldn’t be talking or shouting ( from an Islamic point of view) and that they will write everything they want to say on banners and signs and carry them along. I stood there in surprise, feeling I shouldn’t interfere, being totally alien to the scene, with my uncovered hair and my tights. I hoped that a lady with a Hijab would interfere, because if I did, I won’t have the same credibility she would have.  This is exactly what happened. Suddenly another lady who is wearing Hijab interfered, she had a less conservative kind of Hijab, and it was very clear she is a working lady. She wondered in surprise why should the march be silent?!  Others were humming sentences like “ because of the men around—our voice is weak”. Then the lady that suggested the silent march replied that we can walk behind any man and chant behind him, not to lead the chants. That is when things became more interesting. The objecting lady said that if any lady volunteered to lead the chants everyone would chant along including men! The first lady was silent and gave the look of having nothing more to say and that she kind of agrees, so did other humming ladies.

I mentioned this situation just to show you that not all Hijab-wearing ladies think as positively as you do or as that objecting lady in the situation does.  Away from the long analytics and debates of Islamic feminism, there is a remarkable category of people who heard nothing about your arguments and who are deeply affected by the mainstream social/religious norms dichotomy.

I think my argument is justified when I said I was surprised, yet proud of all the Hijab-wearing ladies chanting and leading demonstrations and volunteering everywhere in Tahrir.