An Egyptian student discovers the reasons for wearing Nikab and the stories of three women underneath them. And brings to light one of the controversial issues in Egyptian society.
by Hend Taher
Since I was a kid, I was always surrounded by women and girls who were wearing Nikab, in Al-azhar School and at the University, in my family, at Summer Schools and at the mosque. I was so accustomed to it that it did not cross my mind. Then I found that there is the widely spread opinion in Europe that Nikab is compulsion and oppression of women’s rights. So I looked around to see: are women really forced to wear it?
I enter the mosque – women side. Amira works as a volunteer teacher at the Girls’ Summer School. She’s standing there with her long loose black clothes, talking and laughing with other women and playing with the kids around her. When we sit on a calm corner, she starts telling her story. “I took the way gradually, first I wore skirts, then coats and after that I started to study Quran Interpretation”, she explains. “To get close to God you want to follow all His commands. To wear Nikab is either obligatory or virtue, and I want to get close to God with both.”
At first Amira’s husband disagreed to her request to wear Nikab. It took them four years of arguing until he finally agreed. “What the hell is this? Ninja Turtles? I can’t see your face, I can’t look at you!”, he used to yell at her, accusing her that she was only trying a new thing or making a great fuss. His friends reacted to his behavior with disbelieving, telling him to be grateful that his wife took the initiative to wear Nikab. Still not convinced of Nikab itself, he respects his wife’s decision. Now he supports Amira and tells her to cover her face when men come around.
The young mother says that Nikab did not make a radical change in her life. “Generally I try to behave with more self-discipline and to be a role model for Nikab. I’m very social, speak loudly and laugh and Nikab helps me to control my extraversion in the company of men. I try to improve my obedience to my husband and to raise my kids in a better way.” Nikab also did not effect the small trade she runs. “People started to treat me with more respect”, Amira explains, “for two reasons: first, because they respect anyone who has a religious appearance. Second, and that’s funny, they think I’m an old women so they help me.” For example, if she gets into public transport, as a normal women she would be crowded together with men, but if she is with Nikab, it is known that she does not like that, so men accelerate to spare her a place and do not surround her.
Amira understands the rules of Islam in the way that dealing with men should be limited; no chat that goes further than polite greeting and rare small talk, no joking. She smiles at me. “Now when I visit my friends or attend a party – only for women – I can put my make-up and nail polish on at home before I leave. Before Nikab I wouldn’t have done that.” Now Amira is always dressed in black, her favourite color to wear. She also covers her hands, mainly because it’s a part of the full uniform of Nikab and she feels that they appear to be more attractive when they are the only uncovered part of her body.” My family still calls me ‘the ghost’”, she says with an ironic smile. “But as long as my God and my husband are pleased, I don’t care about that.”
Just before we leave the mosque, she asks me if the article will be published in Europe. ”Then ask them why they don’t accept us in their countries, while we accept the way they dress here.” While we walk through the streets, I cannot see Amira’s face any longer, but I hear her laughing and see it in her eyes.
We sit at her home, facing one another, Eman is looking at me with a serious face and a little smile. She is asking to see the questions, assuring again that she would just answer what she wants. The 47-year-old housewife and mother is wearing Nikab for about 20 years. She moved back to her homeland Egypt at the age of 21 from Libya, where society is more reserved.
By that time, Nikab uniform was only produced in Saudi Arabia, where black is the traditional color for women. For Eman it has no Islamic origin, but it is the most reserved color, because it hides the body’s shape details. She knew that Hijab is used to cover the whole body except face and hands. When her sister started to wear Nikab, it was not even common in Egypt at that time. “I started to search and I found that Nikab is better in Islam anyway.” Eman was the second woman in her family to wear Nikab. She had been upset and rattled about men’s obscenity towards her. “Nikab states a plain message, it draws a red line and keeps people away from behaving rude and joking with me that way.”
The reactions to her new look varied from acceptance to complete refusal: ”Once a women pulled my clothes, yelling ’What the hell are you wearing?!’” Eman tells me that sometimes when she went shopping, some people treated her with respect, others talked to her in a rude and aggressive way.
Later when I speak with Eman‘s husband in confidence, he tells me that his family refused Nikab and some members avoid her since that. He says there is nothing in Islam command or preferred: “No doubt, it causes difficulties, it builds barriers in social communication.” Nevertheless he bought Eman her first Nikab. “I refuse the act, but to wear it or not is personal freedom,” he says.
“I grew up in a religious house and I was already reserved.” When her family met, she sometimes sat separately from the men together with other women. ”I want to eat, talk and dress freely. It is important to me that God is pleased, and I was ready to sacrifice more to achieve that.” To improve the chary look, Eman even tried to cover her eyes. But she explains it handicaps the vision, especially at night. The hands cover causes small difficulties – like opening plastic bags and counting the money. Later another woman in the family started to wear Nikab. “It wasn’t a big event and she wasn’t exposed to too much harassment”, Eman explains. “Now, since Nikab exists in all families and in all social classes it became an avowed phenomenon and it imposed itself.”
When I looked around in my circle of friends for women who wear Nikab, I found out that less than a handful of them was forced to wear it and most women wear it voluntarily for religious reasons.
I am looking around for Shimaa at the University café until I see her with her blue coat, long head scarf and a black face cover. We search for a place where no men are around. She offers me a gum and cheers me up. When we start to talk about Nikab, her voice turns sad.
At the age of 13, Shimaa decided to put Nikab on, after a year of hiding that she has had her period. “I knew that my father was going to force me on it anyway and I wanted to take the initiative.” Her Salafist father told her that Nikab is obligatory and he is responsible for her in front of God. Reaction around her was congratulating and encouraging. For her friends it was no big deal and some of them who belong to Salafist families are in a similar situation. On the first day to wear it, Shimaa’s father hugged and congratulated her. ”He was happy and I was happy, too.” Just before she went out to the street, her father brought down El-besha [eyes cover, editor‘s note] and since then it became a fait accompli. “At night I cried and felt regret” Shimaa says.
Since that many things have changed. Now when they have visitors at home, she has to stay on the women side. She was not able to go to many parks and entertaining places because, then, in Egypt it was not allowed for women who wear Nikab to enter it. Her father forbade her to visit Dream Park, a famous theme park. “That’s no suitable behavior for a woman who wears Nikab” he told her. Reading romantic stories and listening to music, like most schoolmates do, was disapproved: “Nikab puts you on the frame of the ideal person who people expect to be so religious and so ethical. That made me pressured that I didn’t want to deal with anyone expect people who know me well.”
For Shimaa, Nikab creates a visual and psychological barrier. When dealing with a friend who wears Nikab, she asks her to raise it in order to communicate with her. Shimaa does not believe at all that Nikab is obligatory. ”Even though my look is quite normal”, she also has to cover her eyes and hands in front of her father. “I hate El-besha. I often fall down because of it, it causes headache, low vision, and I can’t read with it!” While we are speaking, a man moves around, so Shimaa puts her Nikab down. When I ask her why, she says she does not want to be a bad example for women who wear Nikab.
Now Shimaa is 20, studies economic sciences and is looking forward to work. She is waiting for the first chance to take Nikab off. “My field of work is either in management or the stock market and they will refuse me in both with Nikab.” So she hopes for marrying someone who will understand that or somehow to get independence. At the end, she says with a smile, ”I hope our next meeting will be about how it is after taking Nikab off.”
Hend Taher (20) lives in Cairo and studies German philology at Al-azhar University. She is editor in chief of the student newspaper Einen Moment Mal.