Let’s Get Political

8 October, 2009

In an earlier message, I spent some time talking about the varying styles of dress I observed in Egypt, paying particular attention to the varying vays in vich vomen vere veiled (sorry, couldn’t resist).  So you can imagine how interesting it was for me to read that  earlier this week, Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, the dean of Al Azhar University (where Obama gave his speech in June) and Egypt’s top Muslim cleric, announced he would issue a fatwa banning the wearing of the niqab (the aforementioned gown that leaves only the eyes exposed) at all of Egypt’s universities and public schools.

I’ve long been fascinated by the way in which the US media and policymakers  treat Islamic issues. Without making this blog extremely dense or preachy, I feel like elements within the US media and more than a few of our elected officials (on both sides of the aisle) treat Islam as a monolithic entity, in which all Muslims are equal in their devotion to and perceptions of Islam, and customs in Kandahar, Afghanistan are readily transferable to Beirut, Lebanon, Ankara, Turkey, or Cairo. The truth is, Islam as some indivisible hive-mind doesn’t exist, just like how Christianity or Judaism doesn’t exist in a similar fashion. And you can really appreciate that by walking down Al Bitash in El Agamy, or sitting in a cafe in Alexandria and just taking note of how people interact with each other, and with themselves.

My classmate, Hebah, is an American of Egyptian descent. She used to live in Boston, speaks Arabic fluently, and has spent the past few years living and working in Egypt. Her take on these issues is really interesting: while she considers herself a Muslim, she sees nothing in the Koran that orders that women cover themselves or debase themselves before men, and such attitudes are cultural remnants of tribal culture that predated Islam by centuries.

Sheikh Tantawi’s comments apparently echo this theme. Reportedly, the incident that brought on this entire controversy came when he visited a girl’s school, and saw a girl wearing the niqab. He ordered her to take it off, reportedly bellowing something to the effect of “There’s nothing in the Koran that says you have to be covered” and “I know Islamic law better than your parents!” (Though, ironically, the girl had worn the niqab to honor Tantawi’s presence…awkward…)

Interacting with the trainers and students at the school are especially interesting. Most of the female students wear the hijab (the hair covering) but it seems like most wear it as a fashion accessory rather than a faith-based one. My student was uncovered and looked like someone you might see walking around LES (that’s the Lower East Side of Manhattan for those of who you don’t speak hipster.) While I didn’t feel it would be appropriate to ask my student about the imminent niqab ban, I found an interesting piece on the BBC that sampled four Egyptians’ opinions on the matter. I’m excerpting the most interesting bits here, though I think it’s a worthy enough article to read in full.

Some female voices:

“I am a religious person and have worn a headscarf since my university years. But I do not believe there is anything in the Koran telling women to cover their faces.”

“I believe God gave us many options – we can be religious and still live in the modern world. I pray and fast during Ramadan, but I also watch television and sometimes wear jeans.”

“I have worn the niqab for about five years. I do so because I feel more comfortable wearing it. It means people judge you for your personality, not the way you look.”

“Unfortunately some men think women like me who wear the niqab are making a judgement about them. Many are surprised that I am an educated woman and a journalist.

I think more women are wearing the headscarf and niqab today – but this does not mean Egypt is becoming more religious. People should not be scared about women wearing such garments, it does not mean the country is becoming more radical.”

From men:

“Women have the choice in Egypt about whether to wear the niqab. But I would prefer to marry a woman who wears this garment. I find such women who wear this more polite and faithful.”

“More women wear the niqab in Egypt than 10 years ago, because religion is becoming more important in people’s lives. I think this is a good thing because it means people want to be closer to God.”

“The niqab has absolutely nothing to do with piety or Islam, in fact it is demeaning and inhuman.”

“I notice more women wearing the headscarf. But this may be about fashion as much as religion. A headscarf-wearing woman may not be more pious than one who does not cover her hair.”

Religious interpretation is as intolerant or tolerant as the individual who interprets it. I won’t defend misogyny or murder if someone holds a holy book in front of them, and at the same time, I also won’t get behind those who paint an entire religion with a tarred brush.

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2 Responses to “Let’s Get Political”

  1. laura nisbet said

    Please submit this to some newspaper or publication where your observations and common sense can reach the public…

  2. Hi,

    Thank you for the great quality of your blog, each time i come here, i’m amazed.

    black hattitude.

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