A day in Niqab in the midst of the Cairo Salafi movement [Part 1]

The day started as any other. It was a Friday, and I headed down to Tahrir Square in Cairo to participate in the protest to “Save the Revolution”. I bumped into my friend from university, Amina Ismail, there who told me she was going to dress in Niqab and attend a Salafi conference and asked if I wanted to join. I ended up having one of the most interesting days of my life.

There is a lot to write about it, so this post will be divided into several parts.

Part 1: A day in Niqab

Part 2: The Salafis are taking over Egypt

I have always struggled with where I stand on Niqab. On one hand, I consider myself quite a liberal individual and a supporter of women’s rights and equality, so the idea of Niqab always made me uncomfortable. Why would a woman choose to be invisible, not to have a presence, and confine herself in this role? I would ask myself. However, I’m also a supporter of freedom of choice, and the freedom to live one’s own life as they please. So if a woman chooses this, then shouldn’t I be the first to respect that choice and let go of my prejudice? A constant struggle in my mind.

As I started to put on the Abbaya (the black loose curve free dress), the veil and the mask, I was already confused. My veil kept falling apart since I lack the skills to keep it on as I’ve never put on a veil in my life. The Burqa’, which is made up for four layers, two meant to be pulled back, and when in the front they show your forehead and completely cover your eyes. While the other two, are the ones below the eyes meant to cover the rest of the face. Every time I would bend down, or whenever some wind came along, the top two layers would cover my face and in the midst of confusion I’d tell my friends “I can’t see a thing, HELP!”, which they found hilarious every time.

Wearing the Niqab in Tahrir Square

As I walked through Tahrir, a place I’ve been frequently visiting since January 25th and a place where I’ve always felt the most free, all of a sudden a whole new set of feelings washed over me, none of them associated with freedom. I felt hot and uncomfortable. I couldn’t really see properly, and could only smell cloth. I bumped into people I knew, and my initial reaction was to go say hi when I caught their eye. But wait, they had no idea who I was. It was like my entire identity was erased. I was no longer Rowan as I’ve always known her. I was another person. A person who is ultra-religious. A person who chose to hide her identity in public. A person who chose to only be seen by family or another woman. I was someone who always dressed the same. It felt strange knowing that I had on my everyday clothes underneath, knowing that I’m still me, but no one sees it but myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt less special. Even when I went home later dressed like this, my mother didn’t recognise me, not even when I spoke.

As sexual harassment (including groping, cat calling and stares from men) is so common in Egypt. And since I experience  it a lot in the kind of clothes I wear (that are not inappropriate or anything, really) I had heard that women in Niqab still experience harassment, less than us, but it was still there. I was very curious to see peoples’ reactions to me, particularly men’s. In all fairness I didn’t get harassed.  People’s reactions however, were another story. Some completely avoided looking at me or catching my eye, almost as if in fear of me. While others would just blatantly stare right at me in disbelief. There were some who just reacted to me in the same way they probably would have if I was myself though.

What struck me also, was the expectations that are put on a woman in Niqab. My friend Deena, also in Niqab, had her professional camera as we walked around, and was taking photos of the small protest in solidarity with the third Palestinian Intifada. I thought she looked so weird, and so did people around us, who would just pass by and stare. A feeling of guilt swept over me for feeling that way though. I mean, just because a woman chose to wear Niqab, does that mean she has no passions, no interests and no hobbies but praying, reading Quraan or getting married and having babies? I hated myself a little for feeling awkward to her taking photos with that camera. At the same time, I questioned whether it was a fair prejudice to make since the Niqab is not just about what you wear, but rather a series of life choices that come with it. Like when my other friend, Amina decided to put up the Niqab in the middle of Tahrir because she felt too hot and suffocated. A woman and a man sitting next to us on the curb started arguing with her on how she’s misrepresenting Niqab and that she has no right to do this. As we walked away from them, with Amina complaining that they had no right to butt in and tell her what to do, I found myself questioning out loud whether I agreed or disagreed with them. Another mind-boggle.

An intriguing situation happened to us while we were at the Amr Ibn El Aas mosuqe listening to the Salafi sheikhs (of course listening, not seeing, as we were sitting in the women’s section of the mosque where we had speakers that had horrible quality, not to mention the insane amount of kids running around and playing). As we sat there, a woman approached us and asked the three of us “How old are you girls?” and we answered “23”. She explained that she wanted to find a bride for her 38 year old brother, and asked if we knew a “pretty bride” (aka 3arousa Amoura) like us but a bit older. I found this peculiar. She knew nothing about us. All she could tell was that we were religious. And that was apparently all she was looking for in a bride for her brother. I was struck with how different people can be. I cannot imagine anyone looking for my life partner on my behalf. Not to mention that the search would be based on only one aspect I might add.

At the end of the day, I don’t know if I can extract lessons learned from this experience to share. All I can really say is that walking in another persons’ shoes has never felt so real.


18 Responses to A day in Niqab in the midst of the Cairo Salafi movement [Part 1]

  1. Sara says:

    Interesting post! As a feminist I also find it difficult to find out where I stand on the niqab: on the one hand it does seem to hide women, but on the other hand feminism is about the freedom of choice. I find that I have so many stereotypes about niqabis, for example that they don’t value anything but religion, and that they just want to marry and have kids. Just like every woman has different reasons for doing certain things, niqabis probably all have different reasons for choosing to wear niqab.

  2. Asma says:

    I’m looking forward to part 2. Part of me is impressed that you’re willing/interested to see how a different “subculture” lives in egypt. But part of me is sad to realize that you probably never actually sat and talked to a girl who wears the niqaab, much less get to know her, much less visit her in her house and see how she lives (previous to this day). There is such prejudice and generalization (which I am so glad to see you acknowledge) of secular intellectuals in egypt about women who wear the niqab and people who are ideologically salafi (2 circles that do not entirely overlap). I know dozens of women who wear the niqab and count many of them as my good friends. Like all people, they come from all social classes and all educational backgrounds and all areas of interest and all temperments and all degrees of cleverness and all types of life choices overall. Definitely not all of them are ideologically salafi – many poor, uneducated women wear it for their own reasons. Then “upper class” liberal people meet them, have a bad experience, and generalize to form an impression about all women who wear the niqab. Anyway, looking forward to part 2.

  3. liz says:

    interesting post. thanks for sharing your thoughts. i will certainly read your follow-up post.

  4. marwa says:

    I think it laudable that you it on, I have never wanted to, though I, too, went through an existential dilemma over the issue.

    This is an excerpt from a fb note I wrote re niqab, it was in response to one of my oldest friends donning the cloak of secrecy; “… I do not approve.I don’t understand it at all, don’t see how it can be of any spirtual good or religious eminence. It seems to me that its people refusing rather than accepting, people escaping and not surrendering, shying away from the societies, the humanity to which they belong. ”

    In case you’d like to give it a read, http://www.facebook.com/editprofile.php?sk=basic&success=1#!/note.php?note_id=431894434079

    Waiting for the rest of your story

  5. Sarah says:

    Very interesting article Rowan. I find myself confused when it comes to the Niqab issue because even though I feel that the Niqab is oppressive because it creates a barrier between you and the world, I like you, still recognize that it is everyone’s right to wear what they please.
    I have interacted with women in the Niqab and I know that they come from all social classes, but I’ve never actually had a friend who wears one. More recently though an old school friend of mine called me up and informed me that she has started wearing the Niqab. I was disappointed by her decision to do so but I told her on the phone that as long as it’s her decision and she’s comfortable with it then it’s her right.
    I am yet to see her after this decision but I’m sure it will be a very interesting interaction.

  6. Omar says:

    It’s simply insane to put Niqab under the “freedom of choice” category, it’s a choice you take based on years of mental oppression and growing up in a ill-fed environment. It’s also very uncomfortable to see feminists like yourself, or so-proclaimed, not understanding this fact.

    When someone grows up in a house that forbids and punishes against the use of TV, music, or any other entertainment facility, and then he/she announces that, out of free choice, he decided that he doesn’t want to watch TV or listen to music, it is simply insane to say that this is freedom of choice.

    • Rehaam says:

      There are many women who grow up in quite “normal” environments but still choose to wear niqab.

  7. rowan says:

    wow what an amazing experience i always wanted to know how it feels to wear a niqab,thanks for sharing your experience with us

  8. rouelshimi says:

    Thanks for the Feedback everyone.

    @Asma: You’re right, I haven’t had a decent conversation with a Monaqaba although I would want to. I recognise my prejudice towards them, and hope that one day my mind will be open enough through a certain experience to see past the niqab.

    @sarah: I can’t wait to hear about that interaction!

    @omar: I don’t like the fact that you are 1. labeling me as a feminist and 2. Judging whether I am or not. I think you are over generalising to a large degree. Not all women who choose to wear the niqab were brought up in the conditions you described. Many lived the kind of life you and me would label “Normal” and made the decision themselves.
    Also, you may say its not freedom of choice if you were brought up in this sort of environment , but you could argue the same thing in my case. You could say I was brought up in a house that is very liberal and not that religious and so I didn’t have a choice in not being religious or not wearing the niqab.
    I believe questioning the choices we make and our perceptions is the main point behind my post.

  9. Sherifa says:

    I loved your post, and I’m impressed with the idea of wearing the niqab to get a glimpse of the other side and to hear what they have to say in a salafi conference.

    I also share your confusion on where I stand, I most definitely hate the idea of making a Fard out of something that is not. From a religious point of view, to those Imams who decide to lay a rule that was not written in Quran, and make it into something you should do is a great sin.

    However, what we must teach ourselves is to accept other ways of thinking and to find what unites us as human beings instead of focusing on what separates us. I think that is the main thing we need to learn in this coming year if we want this revolution to be successful. The old regime was creating social divides to rule.

    I’m looking forward to your next post.


  10. Asma says:

    @Rowan, I think I love you ;) Thank you for being so objective and open-minded and aware of what you know and what you don’t know or have assumed. That’s how we build a society of tolerance.

    As opposed to @ Omar! Seriously, where are you getting this information from? Out of every niqab-wearing woman I know in egypt (and I know many of them, since I study the qur’aan at a salafi dar tahfeeth though I don’t wear the niqaab), I don’t know a single one of them who grew up in the type of environment you’re describing. Egypt isn’t pakistan, afghanistan, or the khaleej – the generation prior to us wasn’t exactly raised upon conservative islam. Almost every niqaabi I know was the first to do so in her family and in most cases her parents thought she was insane and going overboard. Thus, almost every niqaabi I know is very independent-minded, stubborn, intelligent, etc. to be able to choose a different path than what she grew up with, and is thus much more open-minded and tolerant (of her family and friends who are different) than you would expect — believing in what she has chosen, but not condemning those who’ve chosen differently, because they realize we’re all finding ourselves on our own journey.

    Remember, 30 years ago, the hijab/tar7a almost didn’t exist in egypt and was seen as incredibly backwards. Societies swing in a pendulum between liberalism and ultra-conservatism, and ultimately we’ll find a middle ground if we take the time to actually learn about each other.

  11. Khayreddin says:

    I certainly found it a fascinating read, am waiting eagerly for the sequel, and wonder whether not anyone who presumes to judge women shouldn’t avail themselves of this perspective first – us feminism-sympathizing men included!

    Frankly, I’m afraid I wouldn’t pass, and consrquently I’ll withhold judgment. But it’s surely fascinating!

  12. captainlarab says:

    An excellent book that might help you tease out & process your feelings on the topic: http://www.amazon.com/Veil-Modesty-Privacy-Resistance-Culture/dp/1859739296/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1302221949&sr=8-1. This book presents veiling as essentially an interpersonal boundary regulation mechanism. Every culture needs such mechanisms because everyone needs some ability to regulate their feelings of closeness/openness to other people. The book points out that there are cultures in which both men and women veil, which helps break veiling free from these assumptions about gender oppression and gets at deeper levels of understanding of what veiling is really all about.

  13. captainlarab says:

    Sorry, a typo–that’s “closedness/openness to other people.” Think of free expression and privacy as existing in a sort of yin-yang relationship. We need both in equal amounts, and what we really need to feel empowered as human beings is the sense that we can regulate this open-closed ratio for ourselves.

  14. Here, finally, is the interview concerning the social attitudes and self-perceptions of women wearing a niqab you asked me for.

    The women speaking are women of my family.

    I have choosen to ask them the following questions, on which the interview is centred:

    1) Why do you wear it?

    2) What do you think is the value, or the implication, of the niqab ?

    3) How do you feel when you wear it?

    4) How do you perceive girls who are wearing miniskirts and
    revealing dresses? What is your attitude towards them?

    5) Don’t you see the niqab, in a way, as an expression of a subordinated
    status of the woman?

    6) What is the relationship between the niqab and women’s rights/feminism?

    7) Do you consider the mode of dress to be a matter of personal choice? If this is so, how do you react to alternative expressions of the personality, say to someone who chooses to paint her hair green and wear torn jeans?

    8) Anything else you want to say about the topic.

    The following statements are really the work of three women. Since Amina, however, has been the main contributor and the other two contributors would prefer to remain anonymous, all answers will be formally attributed to her.
    My mother, who rejects both hijab and niqab, will be referred to as Oum Muhammad and provide an occasional contrast to Amina’s views.


    1) Why do you wear a niqab?
    2) What do you think is the value, or the implication of the niqab?

    Amina: First of all, I wear it because I love Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) and because I put this love above any other thing in the world. It is natural that the lover seeks closeness to the Beloved by means of doing things that please HIM.
    As a hadith qudsi beautifully illustrates, the niqab is such a thing. The niqab is mustahab. Being neither fard nor sunnah, it is an asceticism of the spirit.
    Our worshpip of Allah (sws) through our obedience of whatever HE commands us to do draws us near to HIM, and by doing even more than HE has commanded us, we shall be drawn even nearer to HIm, insha’llah.

    Clearly, the veil, or a modest dress, is a command from Allah. Sisters attain closeness to HIm in doing that, in the first place. When we are doing all this, and we are still seeking a deeper expression of our taqwa, the niqab can help us to achieve this. If there were no other justification than that, surely this would be reason enough.
    The niqab is, in fact, like the observance of an additional fast after Ramadan.

    Oum Muhammad: Well, if it’s a person’s dearest wish to wear it, they should wear it. I respect that. But to people like me, this would be taking things to the extreme.

    Amina: How can it be “extreme” to do what your heart tells you? Niqab is beautiful. We are not offending or challenging anyone by wearing it.
    It also emphasises the separation between private sphere and public sphere. Islam places great importance on privacy, and on keeping private what should be kept private. So it is important to me to physically protect my private sphere against any incursion, just like Islam bans speculations on a person’s private life, gossip and spying (Surat An-Nur, Ayat 12-13; Surat Al Hujarat 11-12) in order to protect people’s privacy and personal freedom. In our private sphere, life is relaxed. You can be at ease with your dress, your social life, your ways.
    And strangers have no business peaking into it. I’m not public. I have the right to protect myself against gossip and public surveillance. My niqab is my way of pointing that out. If I see myself in the mirror like this, it helps me remind myself of who I am. It is the seal of the Beloved(Allah)in my aspect, and it motivates me to behave in the best possible manner.

    Sometimes people critisise us for being over-concerned with outward things. It is true that that can lead to hypocrisy, especially when the preoccupation with our outward appearance prevents us from concerning ourselves with our inner identity and our own personal values. Yet, we should not be discouraged by hypocrites who are trying to replace inner reality by outward pretension. We should look at ourselves and at things without prejudice, to achieve a balance of inner core and outward manifestation.
    In this sense, the niqab, to me, is a spiritual jihad, because sometimes it is difficult to stick to wearing it. So it makes me look deeper into myself to find the faith and the courage it takes. So, again, think just how much of a challenge a niqab is, and how much more of a benefit when the nafs, the inner self, has been conquered!

    Oum Muhammad: I respect anyone’s way of life. Your way of explaining your motives makes it all seem clear and nice enough. But I have never been the spiritual type. For me it’s out of the question to wear a thing like that because a) it doesn’t make me feel myself, b) it therefore makes me look grotesque and c) as you said, no one can impose his or her values on me when my heart tells me otherwise.

    Amina: It is always right to follow your heart. We are in perfect agreement on this. Everyone has to make her choice and stand by it.

    Speaking of the context of dress,it is also true, on the other hand, that a lot of what Muslim women wear is steeped in tradition and culture prior to Islam, and much of what is considered “Islamic dress code” has really nothing to do with the actual guidelines of the Quran. As long as a sister dresses in a way that doesn’t place sexuality into the public sphere and shows self-respect, without large cleavages or excessive accentuation of her bodily features, her mode of dress is Islamically sound.


    3) How do you feel when you wear a niqab?

    Amina: To be honest, I feel safe, comfortable and happy. I feel myself. Because if you wear jeans or if you dress up for men, it makes you worry all day long how you look; whether you’re looking good, whether it’s attractive and stylish enough, how you are seen by others… Wearing hijab makes me forget about my cloths and relax. And what I appreciate most is that when you’re wearing it men actually look to the ground and talk very respectfully, unlike when you don’t.

    4) How do you perceive girls who are wearing miniskirts and revealing dresses? What is your attitude towards them?

    Amina: Al hamduli’llah! I don’t dress that way.

    Oum Muhammad: Well, what’s ‘revealing’? There is fashion and there are limits. If you’re young it’s cute to dress in a certain way. We all liked feminine, stylish, elegant things when we were young. If you’re young and lively and sweet, you can afford it. But when I see the tourists entering the National Museum in beachwear, or entering vehicles of public transport half naked, I feel that is an open display of disrespect for the country and its culture and heritage.

    Amina: It puzzles me seeing these girls constantly pulling their micro mini skirts because their underwear keeps showing. Why not just wear a longer skirt and be free? I often wonder how they can be surprised by the looks they attract. I think even we look at them, so if a man looks, what else did you expect? If you are offering strawberries, do you want people do buy or not to buy? I don’t think it does much for their self-respect–and for society’s respect of women.


    5) Don’t you see the niqab, in a way, as an expression of a subordinated status of the woman?

    Amina: No.

    Oum Muhammad: Yes.

    6) What is the relationship between the niqab and women’s rights/feminism?

    Amina: Equality is largely about everyone having equal choices and options. The classical American and European feminism of the 1970’s and ’80’s had a notion of “housewives” being traitors to the cause because their personal choice didn’t correspond to the expectations of privileged and career-driven professional feminists. This meant, in fact, a disregard and a further downgrading of the role of women whose social contribution consisted of managing the household and raising kids. This was wrong. It was fair to point out that some women simply had no choice but be housewives. It was fair to point out the social and economic factors that deprived women of any alternative, that excluded them from any other occupation. The struggle against this social exclusion and gender-based discrimination is the great achievement of feminism. But it was never right to suggest that those who made their own choice in favour of a more traditional preoccupation were “traitors to women’s liberation”.
    And then there are people like us, who never had any choice but make a living and raise kids at the same time, to whom this entire dispute was nothing.
    That’s why it is important to have our own Islamic feminism, which expresses ourselves as we are, and our own views and feelings within the culture we represent.

    Oum Muhammad: Western feminism has very much remained a theory. Theoretically, the woman has been liberated and emancipated. In reality, her wages remain a fracture of a man’s wages who does the same work. It’s the man who determines what programme to watch on TV. It’s the man for whom women dress up and for whom they sacrifice their own lives, which is taken for granted. Their sacrifice is repaid with disregard. The men and the society they sustain with their devotion and their strength do not feel they owe them anything.
    If women ever hope to improve their position they must do, I don’t know what…
    Maybe that is how God has made the world.

    Amina: God has made the world for us to guard and improve it. HE taught us to fight for our rights. He taught us in the Qur’an to be persistent and believe in ourselves and our mission as human beings and never give up the struggle, no matter what the odds. All people, men and women are equal. Each generation will do their own part of the struggle to make this real, until it is won, until the world and humankind will be free.

    7) Do you consider the mode of dress to be a matter of personal choice? If this is so, how do you react to alternative expressions of the personality, say to someone who chooses to paint her hair green and wear torn jeans?

    Oum Muhammad: It’s extreme. It’s hard to put up with a choice like that.

    Amina: I can’t speak for everyone. My opinions and feelings are just my own. In fact, I would never presume to dictate anyone else what to do or wear or think. Personally, I’m not offended by it at all. I want to ask why could different ways of life not be compatable? Why could different people not just accept each other the way they are and coexist? And what is it about Western-style dress that makes it universally acceptable while the traditional dress of other cultures is not? What makes the European and American way of life more than just one culture among many? What makes them think and feel supreme? What is the justification of stepping on the rights and values of others with one’s feet?

    Oum Muhammad: It’s because this is how capitalism works. Don’t expect compassion. He who proves stronger will eat him that proves weaker. The system that rules the world has no values. Profit and resources is all that counts for them, even if the price is the survival of the planet itself.

    Amina: We won’t allow it. There are people of conscience, people of faith and courage, ready to resist. It is our love of both CREATOR and creation that gives us hope and strength.

    8) Is there anything else you would like to add?

    Amina: I want to say again that the niqab is no necessity of the faith and that no dress code can be externally imposed. But we, the wearers of hijab and niqab, say, for ourselves, that it brings us closer to God. Sheikh Ali Abu Hassan, the former head of the Fatwa Council at the Islamic Studies Institute (ISI) in Cairo confirmed that eventhough it is not required for Muslim women to cover their faces, women should be allowed to wear what they choose.

    And finally, Allah loves us the way we are, whoever we are. Allah is Love. Allah is Devotion. He is the All-Knowing, the All-Compassionate.

  15. *There is a typo in the first sentence:( ‘self-preceptions’ should be ‘self-perception’.

  16. Pingback: A day in Niqab in the midst of the Cairo Salafi movement [Part 2] « Rowan El Shimi

  17. Pingback: An old, but still relevant, Sexual Harassment Article #endSH « Rowan El Shimi

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