What's in a veil

Our friend Sarah Carr opens a blog post about the Egyptian government's latest misguided, ineffectual attempt to legislate what women wear on their heads ("Secularisn't") with some reflection on her own distaste (and doubt over the validity of that distaste) for the niqab, the full face covering. 

I mean there are a million ways to abuse a child on the abuse spectrum. Perhaps allowing/encouraging her to wear neqab isn’t that bad. I think why it bothers me is that it sexualises a child, since for women who wear it, the neqab is an interpretation of the veil, which ultimately is about modesty. No child should have to think about that, and no one should be thinking about that while looking at a child.

I think a lot of people struggle to explain why they feel so differently -- why they feel a line being crossed, or draw a line -- about the hejab (head scarf) and the niqab (full face covering). I like to keep the criminalization of fashion to a minimum, and I think the French ban on the headscarf is ridiculous and discriminatory. But there is more than a difference in degree between covering your hair and covering your face. What's troubling about the niqab is a very obvious thing: it's dehumanizing. We anthropoids acknowledge each other by looking each other in the face and in the eyes -- doing so is one of the most powerful, most meaningful and sometimes uncomfortable (as we've all experienced on public transportation) interactions we can have. To become faceless is to erase yourself and to greatly limit your capacity to relate to others and for others to relate to you. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Nasser, the Muslim Brothers and the veil


This is a wonderful video of a speech given by Gamal Abdel Nasser in which he recounts a meeting with the General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood (at the time, probably Hassan al-Hudaibi) in which he tried to patch things up and, as he puts it, "set them in the right direction." He asks them what their demands are. The Guide replies that his first demand is that all women in Egypt be forced to wear the veil.

The interesting thing is that this line generates an uproar of laughter in the audience. One man shouts out, "why doesn't he veil himself."

With very dead-pan delivery Nasser continues. He says that he doesn't believe that this should be imposed on anyone, that it's a personal choice. The Guide insists, telling him that he should, as ruler, impose the veil. Nasser then relates that he replied: "Your daughter is studying medicine. She does not wear the veil. If you can't impose the veil on your daughter, what makes you think I can impose the veil on 10 million Egyptian women?"

The depressing thing is that, back then, you could mock the leader of an Islamist movement for wanting to impose an alleged religious duty. Today it seems it would trigger anti-blasphemy lawsuits.

Of course Nasser may be at least partly making this up. Although close to the Brothers before he assumed powers, and fully sharing their authoritarian streak, by the time he made this speech he was repressing them. It may have been convenient to ridicule them. But it's the audience reaction that is the most telling.

[Thanks, MG]

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