Egypt Independent

The veil between society and religion



For many, the veil, or hijab, is obligatory attire. For others, it represents faith and obedience to God. The act of covering the head is deeply rooted in many societies and is influenced by various social trends

Veiling was first applied in Assyria in the 13th century. Women of noble origin were required to wear a veil to distinguish themselves from commoners and prostitutes.

But the veil transcends religious boundaries. In Judaism, women are required to cover their heads during prayer in the synagogue. It is also common in some Christian sects for women to cover their heads during prayer.

According to dar al-Ifta website, sponsored by the Egyptian Fatwa House (the authority responsible for issuing religious edicts), every Muslim woman has to wear the hijab once she reaches the age of legal accountability (when she begins menstruating).

The veil also has Quranic origins. In the chapter of Nur, God says: "And tell believing women that they should lower their glances, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what [it is acceptable] to reveal; they should let their headscarves fall to cover their necklines and not to revel their charms." [24:11]

The end of the 19th century witnessed the revival of the veil; in the 1960s, a small but conspicuous movement began promoting the hijab while urging people to return to the teachings of Islam in an effort to stand against the tyranny of the Israeli 1967 war, dubbed ‘Al-Nakssa’ by Arabs. The wave of hijab-wearers grew bigger in the 1980s as more Egyptian families moved to Saudi Arabia and al-Khaleej to live and work. When they returned to their homeland, many brought with them the social teachings of conservative Arab countries.

The late 1990s witnessed an interesting phenomenon, the revival of the hijab among the younger generation, encouraged by young and prominent Muslim preachers like Amr Khaled. Young women of all social standards started covering their hair to abide by the Islamic female outfit. Rumor has it that such a religious wave was put to an end by the government in the early years of the new millennium while placing Khaled in exile for a few years.

”I got veiled ten years ago after a dear friend of mine died in a car accident in the north coast,” says Mariam, a housewife and mother. The veil guarantees a certain peace of mind, protection and comfort, adds the young woman.

“Of course there are ups and down; there are days when I want to look pretty and show off my hair,” confirms the young mother. “But at the end I know I took the right decision."

"It started as a religious phenomenon; people were seeking rescue in religion,” says sociologist Dr. Madiha al-Safty. Working women of the lower class wear the hijab as they leave their houses and remove it once they reach their work place, states al-Safty.

When the first hijab attire shop opened more than five years ago in Mohandessin, it was expensive. Nowadays, the hijab is a social outfit as much as a religious task. ‘Abbayas’ were later added to the equation. They are silky, non-fitted black coats that women wear with the head cover. As more women decide to wear the veil, the urge of standing out and appearing stylish becomes more pressing. Different hijab styles are now witnessed abundantly in the streets of Cairo.

There is the Spanish hijab; it is called Spanish as it’s similar to the hairdo of Spanish Flamenco dancers. The Spanish head cover consists of covering the hair but not the neck. Less conservative women wear the Spanish hijab refusing the traditional headscarves as they deem them unfaltering.

“The traditional hijab consists of covering the head and neck,” says Siham, a tagweed instructor. The religious teacher, however, does wear Spanish hijab on special occasions. “It’s more chic,” she claims, referring to women who cover their hair leaving their neck uncovered. The young scholar states that it is better then nothing and a step towards the right Islamic attire.

“We are not veiled; we simply cover up more than normal women,” says Roudi, a young woman. Roudi wore the head cover in 2001. According to her, covering up or wearing the veil is originally a religious decision that gets influenced by fashion trends over time. The young woman says she has followed three different fashion trends in the the last 10 years. “The Spanish head cover emerged 4 years ago but now it is being replaced with a simpler one, looser and leaves the neck uncovered.”

She, as well, has her ups and downs regarding her head cover but she declares that removing it would be ‘haram’ (a sin). 

“It has become a national dress and more and more women are adopting the new attire,” declares al-Safty. "Even more people are wearing the niqab which is a result of extremist/radical waves from the gulf area."

There is also the layered veil where two or more levels of cloth are wrapped around the head and under the chin, creating volume and contrasting colors. Young women these days tend to imitate Khaleeji Hijab, placing a piece of plastic or cloth on top of their head to create an egg-shaped or a Nefertiti look under the veil. Such a fashion trend is common among women of the upper and middle classes as they more likely have lived in the gulf or have family who have lived there and have been influenced by the fashion trends.

Shopping for loose, non-fitted clothes for veiled woman has become an easier task in the last decade. Such a religious-social wave had its impact on the world of Egyptian fashion and shops like Carina, Takbeer and al-Mohajaba continue to benefit from the various fades. Separate sleeves, high necks, fitted skin toned tops are sold all over Cairo to make the lives of veiled women easier and their pre-veil wardrobe still wearable.

There is even Carina tops for evening wear to be worn underneath plunging necklines and strapless shinny dresses. Long, flowy shirts and blouses, loose pants and skirts seems to be the highest on demand. There are no social or religious restrictions on colors or materials which makes it easy for a veiled woman to dress the way she prefers as long as it is not provoking or revealing.

Whether it is social or religious, the veil has become part of our society, our work places and even our homes.