A day in Niqab in the midst of the Cairo Salafi movement [Part 2]

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 (omg!)

As we drove through the city, three girls in Niqab, listening to hip hop music on the way (music that neither of us normally actually listen to) we were headed to Amr Ibn El-Aas Mosque on Friday April 1st to attend the Salafi Conference.

Driving through Masr El Adima neighbourhood, we stopped by a local Cafe (or Ahwa) to make sure we were headed down the right path, as soon as I lowered the window the man said “Yes, yes, you’re on the right track, keep on driving”. Apparently it was evident to the man where we were headed.

The Salafi Movement Conference

Upon arrival at the mosque, the first thing we saw was a huge sign at the entrance “Egypt is an Islamic country, not a civil one nor a military one” along with another that read “There is no separation between the state and religion”. Red flags went up in my head. We walked into the mosque, took off our shoes and made our way into the women’s section. As we sat there, all we could do was listen to the speeches being made by the sheikhs. We couldn’t hear half of what was being said due to the fact that the speakers used were terrible and the amount of children running around and playing did not help. That is why some of the information I will share from what was said at the conference is first hand information I heard there, while some will be gathered from news reports about the conference and attributed.

This conference was called “The Salafi Movement Conference” and hosted some of Egypt’s most prominent sheikhs in support of the Salafi movement including Mohamed Ismail El Mokadem, Said Abdelazim, Yasser El Borhami and Ahmed Farid.

Abdelazim mentioned that Egypt should be run according to the Sharia law, he went on to say that not only Egypt but the whole Arab world should be run by Sharia and should not be split into different states. He discussed that the way the Arab world is divided is due to European colonization and is not based on more than that. He said that we should all live according to Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) way of life. According to Ahram Online, Abdelazim also mentioned that the media had a huge attack on the Salafis in the past weeks and mentioned that they need to get their sources and information straight before they publish any information about the movement. Sheikh Berhamy also mentioned that there were rumors that the Salafis were to attack unvieled women and destroy moslaeums built in mosques and called them lies. He said the Salafi movement strives to change people’s attitudes through preaching and not violence.

Sheikh Abdelazim discussed the vote on the constitutional amendments and made a statement that the result turning to “yes” proves how strong the Islamic movement is. Even though it has been argued that most people who votes yes did so for the sake of “stability” or for their own valid political reasons rather than anything to do with article 2 of the constitution which states that Egypt is an Islamic country and that the Sharia law is a main point of reference. An article that was not even up for referendum. He labeled possible presidential candidates Mohamed El Baradei and Amr Moussa along with prominent business man Naguib Sawiris as “Liberals” who were campaigning for the “No” vote.

What now?

A Sheikh and Priest walk through Tahrir on Friday as a symbol of National Unity. Photo by Deena Adel

This information is not new in anyway. We all knew that the Islamic movements in Egypt want Egypt to become an Islamic state, governed by Sharia law. Just like the liberals want Egypt to become a secular state, just like the socialists want Egypt to become a socialist state. With the January 25th revolution, all these different groups that were previously suppressed by the government started appearing in the media and going public with their message. Then again, isn’t that what we were fighting for? Freedom of expression and liberation? We all knew these groups existed, and they have a voice. Some of them are extreme, yes, and any violence should be punishable by law. Then again its up to us to form groups, movements and parties to represent us in the political arena. The brotherhood, the Salafis and other movements should have a voice, as they do represent a certain amount of the population. Other ways of thinking should be represented and be part of legislation and decision making as well. As long as we will hopefully have a constitution that protects our freedoms and rights as citizens of this country, no matter our gender, religion or beliefs, then there is no fear of the “Isamic Monster” the old regime used to keep convincing us that their oppression would be better than these extreme Islamic movements.

I leave you with this video from the Bassem Youssef Show  (Arabic) Egypt’s very own Jon Stewart. In this episode he disucsses the Constitutional Referrendum that took place last month. This somehow was one of the main events that shed a lot of light on the Salafis in Egypt, and made it seem that 77% of Egyptians voted yes because the Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood pushed them to do so. Whereas as I mentioned above many people voting yes, were voting yes for political and economic reasons. He satirically shows that we have many different, and mostly opposing opinions and political ideologies in Egypt, and of course we’re at a phase where they are clashing because for the first time in decades they have the freedom to speak and act somewhat freely. However, we will find a common ground between the islamists, liberals, conservatives…etc where we can all co-exist freely, just like we did in Tahrir square just a few months back.

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.

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