Increased politicisation of the hijab

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Increased politicisation of the hijab  A heated dispute arose in Egypt late last year following comments by the Culture Minister, Farouk Hosni, that the rising number of Egyptian women wearing the Islamic headscarf or hijab was a "regressive" trend. He told the Egyptian independent daily, Al Masri al Youm, "There was an age when our mothers went to university and worked without the veil. It is that spirit we grew up with. So why this regression?"

As the Culture Minister for eighteen years, Farouk's comments were contentious, particularly given that an estimated 80% of Egyptian women wear some form of Islamic dress. The comments sparked outrage amongst Muslim conservatives.

Representatives of his own party took issue with him, while the largest opposition bloc, the Muslim Brotherhood, demanded his resignation. Farouk was made to appear before two parliamentary committees to 'clarify' his position. As students took to the streets in protest, the religious establishment denounced his comments as an insult to religious leaders.

Mr Hosni defended his comments, saying they "represented no more than a personal opinion", having "nothing whatsoever to do with religion" acting out of self-interest and reacting as they had to secure political gains.

What is particularly significant about the dispute is that it highlights the growth of conservative Islamic practices in Egypt. This growth is also occurring in the wider region, and among Muslims living in Western countries. At its heart are symbols and icons which are central to the struggle for the Islamic world's soul. The hijab is one of the most contentious symbols in the Muslim world.

Many Muslims believe wearing the hijab is obligatory. They cite Qur'anic verses which state women must dress modestly, though some scholars question whether this actually means covering up. For many the hijab has become so politicised that it has almost become impossible to discuss rationally, and without fear of being labeled a kafir, or unbeliever. Testimony to this was the manner in which government officials quickly distanced themselves from Farouk, asserting the right of Egyptian women to wear what they want, within the realms of decency.

Increasing politicisation of the hijabWhereas the 1920s and 1930s saw the number of urban women wearing the hijab decline, the 1970s and 1980s marked its return. Moreover, increasing numbers of women have taken to wearing the abaya, the black cloak and face veil as worn in the more conservative Gulf countries (and a far cry from some of the bikini-clad women that appeared in Egyptian cinema in the 60s).

In discussing his reservations about increased hijab-wearing, the Minister claims that "The (culture of) hijab-wearing that I attacked is one imported from countries with religious attitudes different from those in Egypt."

For Egypt, the shift towards conservatism is in keeping with the changes that have taken place in the wider Muslim world. Locally, the policy of former president Anwar Sadat was to encourage Islamic activism on university campuses, in order to curtail the influence of leftists during the 1970s. The state's close relationship with the Islamic establishment provided it with legitimacy. The government's failure to provide better economic conditions have helped create an Islamic revival.

Increasing politicisation of the hijabModern Egypt has a chequered history of repression, corrupt political patronage, nepotism, state violence and rigged elections. This has led many to lose faith in the political elite. With a population of nearly 80 million, the economy must create 700,000 jobs to deal with the yearly influx of new jobseekers, a difficult task for even the most buoyant economy. With high unemployment, many are denied access to housing, medical treatment, transportation and sufficient food, all factors that threaten the country's stability. A proud people given the country's rich heritage, Egyptians are turning to Islam for protection and guidance.

Moreover, unlike the West, which saw the separation of Church and State, in Islam, religion and politics are inextricably linked. Indeed, many Muslims (though not all) believe that political and social life can only function within Islamic (Sharia) law. For such believers, any deviation means rebelling against God's will.

Furthermore, the collapse of secular Arab nationalism, fostered in the wake of several humiliating defeats at the hands of Israel and continued Western domination of Arab lands, coupled with a closed political environment at home, has seen Islam become the vehicle for social and political protest. Thus, by putting on the hijab each day, women are doing a lot more than simply covering their head.



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Julian argues that 'by putting on the hijab each day, women are doing more than simply covering their head'. There is, he says, an element of political and social protest in the act.

I would be interested to know what Julian makes of the political and social implications of the recent adoption of the 'burquini' by a number of young Australian women. Surely a very positive initiative?

Warwick Dilley | 07 February 2007  

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