Call on Egyptian women to remove hijab provokes a heated debate
CAIRO - A book urging women to stop wearing the Islamic headgear known as the hijab is stirring heated debate in Egypt and unnerving the country’s Islamists, especially its ultra-orthodox Salafists.
In “Urgent Message to Egypt’s Women,” controversial author Cherif Choubachy says the hijab became widely worn in Egypt in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the rise of political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
The emergence of that attire coincided with the 1967 defeat of the Egyptian Army by Israel and the occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, entailing the collapse of Arab nationalism, which was strongly propagated by late pan-Arabist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.
“Instead of nationalism, the general public, suffering deep frustration at the time, found solace in religion,” Choubachy writes in his book.
This retreat from Arab nationalism into religion was aggressively manipulated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements to achieve political goals.
“One of the objectives was, of course, for the radical thinking of these groups to prevail. In this, the hijab turned from a mere headgear to a political statement,” Choubachy said.
Egypt’s Muslim conservatives, the Salafists in particular, were angered by the call that those who want women to be allowed to show their hair “only want to spread vice.”
They rejected the notion that the hijab was linked to the rise of political Islam. “The hijab was present hundreds of years before the world came to know political Islam or the Muslim Brotherhood,” claimed leading Salafist Walid Ismail. “This is less about hijab and more about the anti-Islam sentiment some authors are trying to promote in our society.”
Choubachy, who spent 20 years in Paris working at UNESCO and then for Egypt’s Ahram newspaper, said Islamist movements use the hijab to exploit political and economic failures to further their agenda.
In the 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to convince female university students that covering their hair and body was a sign of religious piety. The Brotherhood even bought scarves as gifts for female university students who agreed to wear the hijab.
“We paid for these scarves from our own pockets to encourage the girls to wear the hijab,” Brotherhood leader Mahmoud Ghozlan said in 2012 at the height of the movement’s political empowerment in Egypt.
Egyptian writer Farida al-Naqqash said the group specifically sought poor female university students from the countryside who considered the free headgear a gift they should not miss.
“This was how they ensured that the largest number of women would wear the hijab,” Naqqash said.
She said she recalled Mohamed Mahdi Akef, the late head of the Muslim Brotherhood, saying that the group would only prevail when all Egypt’s women wore the hijab.
Choubachy said he saw more women wearing the hijab day after day. However, he noticed that, as the society covered up, sexual harassment and unregistered marriages among university students increased.
He first called on women to take off their hijabs in an April 2015 Facebook post, which triggered angry reactions including being called an “enemy of Islam.”
In his book, he cites some of the Facebook messages he received in response to his call. For two years, he says, he received virulent and often obscene messages, mostly from people claiming to defend an important tenet of Islam.
Choubachy said he was not surprised that his call made him a nemesis of Egypt’s Islamist groups.
“I expected a shocking reaction to this invitation,” he said. “I was considered a disbeliever before, anyway.”
He specifies that his call is addressed only to women who are coerced by male family members to wear the hijab. In encouraging women to revolt against male domination he wants them to be free.
“My battle against the hijab is one against despotism and suppression,” Choubachy writes. “It is a battle against the coercion of women and turning them into second-class creatures.”