I went to Egypt this summer to learn how to speak Arabic. What I learned instead was how to cover up, to be invisible, to preserve my “moral reputation.”
All I wanted was to learn the language that would let me break through the barrier that separated me from my grandparents and extended family. But I quickly discovered that the streets of Cairo had other lessons to offer, whether or not I was willing to learn them.
In the Egyptian capital, a wardrobe malfunction is not an accident—it’s a sin. My public crime—by which I mean three centimeters of exposed hip—was apparently atrocious enough to warrant a complete stranger yanking my t-shirt down and proceeding to shoot me a look of disdain that—at one fell stroke—dismissed me based on nothing more than the clothes I was wearing.
But the Egyptian taboo against baring even the smallest bit of skin runs much deeper than mere cultural norms; it is rooted in religion. One does not need to travel to Cairo to witness it—the hijab, or headscarf donned by millions of Muslim women throughout the world, including close family members of mine, is increasingly visible in Western cities, even Cambridge. Scholars, feminists, and Muslims have grappled with the necessity and advantages of veiling, but I had never been forced to truly consider the issue in a personal light until this summer.
The Arabic hijab, which literally means “veil,” “curtain,” or “partition,” refers both to the covering itself and the practice of decent living associated with the Muslim belief that modesty is venerable in all facets of life. Although the ideal is a standard to which both men and women are held, the physical covering of the hair and body is almost exclusively required of women.
Dressing modestly was always a practice espoused in my house, but the decision about what to wear was a personal matter that was settled when I walked out my front door. How promiscuously I chose to dress was between me and my God (although my parents rarely resisted commenting), and had never before become the business of the anonymous public. Dealing with a country where the opposite is true was the defining challenge of my summer, and prompted a period of self-reflection that has become a turning point in my spiritual life. Before this summer, I was too afraid to sincerely question something as holy as religion or second guess the personal choices that people make based on religious beliefs, but I have of late decided that I not only have the right to question Islam, but an obligation to do so when I think it is necessary.
As to the question of wearing the hijab, my answer is, simply: no.
What I may have “lost” in literal religiosity, I have more than won back from engaging with the tenets of my faith. The granddaughter of a veiled woman but thoroughly Tennessean in birth and rearing, I often struggle—here in America—to reconcile a system of doctrinal conventions with the modern life of a twenty-something college student. Striking a balance between parents’ expectations, peer pressure, personal desires, and the judging eyes of a global religion on everything from alcohol to sex to appropriate clothing is a constant and unresolved internal “jihad.”
Religion is a mutable concept in the Gaber household. Having one Muslim and one Christian parent—each from very religious but significantly different backgrounds—meant that the issue was polarizing and thus, rarely forced. Religion was a guidebook for living morally but never a checklist for acting “correctly.” While a headscarf was therefore never on my parents’ agenda or even on my radar when I was growing up, I realized this summer that the hijab is omnipresent in many peoples’ lives, whether they like it or not.
It’s ironic—though the justification for the hijab is to make women less preoccupied with their looks, I have never been more conscious about my appearance than I was in Egypt. Because I am of Arab descent, foreign eyes gazed more keenly at me—at how much skin I showed and how much makeup I wore—than they did at my white friends, although their U.S. passports were no bluer than mine. Equally perceptible were the unabashed stares of lust, constant catcalls, and unsolicited conversations, winks, and even physical contact, as if choosing to show an inch of skin—i.e. my ankles—entitled men to unwanted advances and women to judgmental looks. I could never walk down the street alone without a constant, infuriating paranoia that had me counting down the hours until my flight home. It made me resent Egypt and Islam in general, but I always had the comfort of knowing that I would eventually return home. For millions, that paranoia is an inescapable daily reality, and the consequence of a sad social phenomenon that has long been due for reform.
Needless to say, religion tenaciously resists change—especially a religion that is under constant political attack and has become almost reactionary in response. The problem lies in the impression that to believe, you must also adhere literally to the holy text. While well intentioned, that notion does a disservice to God by underestimating and neglecting his greatest of creations: mankind’s faculty of reason. Holding oneself to conventions that are impractical (imagine long sleeves or even gloves in the 120-degree Saharan heat) and anachronistic is illogical and unnecessary. It’s funny—up until this summer, I would have been outraged by that statement, but now I see that it is true, yet often unrecognized: Modernization is not the enemy of culture, nor is it blasphemous to admit that your religion is ultimately fallible. A far greater sin than showing off my arms would be to fail to confront the tenets of my religion which repel me.
But even sadder than those who are compelled to wear the hijab by social or cultural pressure are those who are not permitted to decide for themselves at all. I have a veiled friend whose sister decided to wear the hijab at the age of five to emulate her older sister, and has not removed the scarf ever since. The little girl’s resolve is certainly remarkable, but her motivation, given her immaturity, is still troubling. What sexuality does a five-year-old have to hide?
There is obviously no universal reason women decide to veil, but most see it as a combination of fulfilling an explicit obligation to God and as a protection against the unsolicited gazes that I so vehemently loathed in Egypt this summer. Those who wear the hijab believe that in doing so, they literally wear modesty, humility, and purity on their sleeves. But the idea that any woman should have to limit her personal freedom in order to gain the ability to move through society unmolested is one that I will never fully understand.
Egypt has seen a rise of religious conservatives (and with that, of veiled women) in the past 50 years—a phenomenon that has been attributed to everything from a reverse-Orientalist political reaction to the reclamation of the hijab as a symbol of female empowerment and choice. Neither justifies what I see as a physical symbol of self-denigration that, consciously or not, has kept women in the Arab and Muslim world in a subordinate social position as a whole.
The hijab presupposes that women cannot be in the presence of men in a non-sexual context, which is also insulting to the men assumed to have no control over their desires. It has become the elephant in the room, actually serving to shift our focus towards sex, rather than allowing each individual to be appreciated for their mind and not simply their body. I wish the woman on the street in Cairo this summer had understood that, and saved me the anger of having my shirt tugged in public by a stranger. But I am thankful that she forced me to analyze that anger and to confront religious beliefs that I now see are as gossamer as her headscarf itself.
Nadia O. Gaber ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Kirkland House.