The issue of the hijab is always an interesting one to people, both inside and outside of Muslim countries. I think that one can only understand the complexity of this issue by spending an extended period of time in a place like Cairo, and seeing firsthand the multitude of ways in which both men and women interpret and exhibit ideas of modesty and religion.
That being said, there has been a flurry of media going around Cairo lately about harassment and the veil. Harassment on the street in Cairo is extensive, and both foreign and Egyptian women experience it. Typically it is through spoken words or gestures, but I known a few women who were touched or groped. The most aggressive harassments I have heard or read about were against Arab Muslim women. There have been two extreme incidents since I arrived in Cairo, and both involved a large group of men harassing women. This is especially scary because in a situation where there are a number of aggressors, sympathetic observers are unlikely to go up against a mob and things quickly get out of control. In both cases muhijaba and muniqaba women were victims, and in one case the Ministry of Interior denies the event ever happened.
While some people assume that harassment is primarily against non-Arab and non-Muslim women because they show their hair or wear the wrong clothes or send the wrong body language, in fact it is quite the opposite. Egyptian women are subject to the same street milieu as foreigners, and the harassment touches nearly all women. In my experience knowing Egpyptian muhijabas, the hijab rarely proves to be an impediment against harassment on the streets of Cairo. One young woman who is veiled told me, “if you get it 90% on the street, I get it 80%.”
Nevertheless, there is a new campaign underway which encourages Muslim women to wear the hijab to avoid harassment. The motto in the first photo below is: “A veil to protect or eyes will molest” and underneath the candy is a Qur’anic verse which says God wants you to walk on the right path but evil people want you to deviate from it. The lower ad reads “you can’t stop them but you can protect yourself.”
I find these images problematic, because while they reinforce the idea that a muhijaba is clean, whole, and untouched, they make it very clear that an unveiled woman is spoiled, trash. Will this justify men’s harassment of unveiled women, and perhaps intensify it?
The first advertisment is also interesting in the three women depicted. The woman on the right is wearing a hijab in what I would categorize the more religious/conservative style. In my last post on the Suq al-‘Ala, the woman in the first photo sitting under the umbrella and the two women looking at children’s toys exemplify what I think of when I see the woman on the right in the top photo. Plain, long hijab with a loose robe over the clothes. However, a good portion of the young women in Cairo wear quite a different style of clothing:
The pink woman on the far left in the first advertisment could be modeled after the women in these photos- muhijaba but wearing pants and/or fitted clothing. So perhaps is it no longer enough to simply cover one’s hair, one must adopt loose, conservative clothing too.
This Washington Post article (see note below on the AP photo this article uses) reports that 98% of foreign women and 83% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed in Egypt, figures which include non-physical harassment. These numbers are alarmingly high, but in fact I have been verbally harassed in every major city I have lived in around the globe, and quite a few that I have visited. The difference in Cairo is the frequency with which the harassment occurs. It truly is a daily (sometimes hourly) occurence. Yet read the article from the Washington Post and pay particular attention to the quotes from men who harass women:
“It makes a woman happy when I call to her. It makes her know she’s attractive”, “The woman herself is the one who makes men harass her”, “If she’s walking, swinging as she goes, of course it will happen.”
It’s the same, standard excuses for harassment we see all over the world.
Hardly any women report sexual harassment in Cairo. For an Egyptian woman, it is often assumed (even by the police) that she brought it upon herself. Tourists rarely make the effort, since they will be leaving and the police process is long and complicated, and expats who live here know that there can be severe repercussions for any Egyptian who is brought before the Tourist Police. Egypt takes the tourist industry very seriously and does not look kindly upon those accused of anything by a foreigner. (Note: The WP article claims that the majority of foreign women are harassed by policemen or security officials, something I personally found surprising as my few interactions with policemen and officials have been fine.) The problem is not in the amount of flesh women expose but in the manner in which young men think it is acceptable to talk to strange women. For these men, there are no repercussions, therefore why stop?
I have heard talk of a proposed anti-harassment law in Egypt. That’s great, but if you can’t get anyone to point a finger, how will you prosecute? If this law goes into effect, I hope there will be corresponding movements to de-criminalize the reporting of harassment.
And finally, I will point out that the oriental dancers and prostitutes in lower class areas wear hijab as they go to and from work. The hijab does not necessarily indicate a particular stance towards religion. There are a hundred different reasons women wear hijab, but avoiding harassment is apparently not one of them.
Regarding the WP article: I have to mention, in this Washington Post article the photo of the four muniqaba women caught me by surprise; my initial reaction was that they were Saudi or Gulf women in Cairo for the summer. The photo was taken along the Nile in June 2007, and it not especially common to see a group of women in full niqab like this in the downtown area. Certainly, a busy neighborhood like downtown draws women from all over Cairo to do business and shopping, and it is quite possible these women photographed are Egyptian muniqaba. However, during the summer the four- and five-star hotels along the Nile fill up with families from Saudi and the Gulf vacationing in Egypt, and the niqab is seen downtown with much greater frequency during the summer months. I live next to a fancy hotel in Zamalek and during the summer I would see anywhere from one to twenty women in niqab on any given day, walking along the street, shopping in the markets, just doing their normal daily routines. Now that the summer is over, I have seen less than five muniqabas in the last month and a half. In other parts of Cairo, for example al-Haram Street, the niqab is more prevalent, and when I was walking along al-Haram a couple weeks ago it was a common sight. However I still have not been to many parts of Cairo and the surrounding area, and here are a couple articles that may better reflect the reality than my incomplete observations:
I am going to assume that the Associated Press photographer who took the photo spoke to the women pictured and they are Egyptian as credited; it would be disappointing if the photographer simply snapped the photo and applied an arbitrary label without fact checking.
And finally, I just want to remind people who are unfamiliar with the niqab that the cloth covering a woman’s face does not mean that she is not a lovely, personable, individual. I am a non-Muslim American who wears jeans and t-shirts, and I have had many friendly exchanges with women wearing niqab: from joking while waiting in line at the market to questions about directions, from laughing about the antics of the chimpanzees at the zoo to meeting potential landladies. Don’t make assumptions about people who dress different from you and just be polite and normal, regardless of what you both choose to cover your bodies with.