Egypt's Hijab Debate

"Islam Is Not a Dress"

Earlier this month Egyptian Cultural Minister Farouk Hosni said that the headscarf is a "symbol of backwardness". The minister, who was quoted in an independent daily, said he was only stating his personal opinion and not a religious view. Reem Nada reports

Farouk Hosni, Egypt's Minister for Culture (photo: AP)
MP's from Mr Hosni's National Democratic Party joined the uproar saying Mr Hosni should not have talked about religious matters

​​He respects veiled women and his veiled employees are never discriminated against, Farouk Hosni said. His comments however created uproar in Egypt's parliament where members of the Muslim Brotherhood group hold 88 out of the 454 seats. 130 MPs including members from Mr Hosni's ruling National Democratic Party, NDP, called for the minister's resignation.

The minister's remarks also sparked demonstrations in several Egyptian universities calling for his resignation and branding him an enemy of Islam. Mr Hosni on Sunday will appear before parliamentary committee for questioning over his remarks.

You can only see her eyes and hear her voice, but if you're a man she might not even talk to you. She's Rana, a twenty-one-year old mother who wears a niqab, a full veil that covers her whole body. Even her hands hole up in a pair of black gloves.

"It doesn't matter whether I'm beautiful or ugly," she says. "Why should I expose myself to humiliating remarks or to someone commenting on my features? Why shouldn't I keep myself for my husband only? Why should I be available for all people?"

"Women are like flowers"

Rana is among thousands of Egyptians who felt humiliated after an extravagant minister said wearing the hijab was a "symbol of backwardness".

Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, an abstract painter who's held office for nearly twenty years, told an independent weekly earlier this month that "women with their beautiful hair are like flowers that should not be covered and blocked from people's eyes".

"Am I backward because I'm obeying God the almighty?! No!" says a woman in her fifties who wears a khimar, a headscarf that covers her shoulders and falls below her waist.

Religious matters are social dynamite

The minister, who's a member of Egypt's ruling party, said his remarks expressed his personal opinion and were not meant for publishing. Mr Hosni last Sunday ended a self-imposed two-week seclusion after parliament members from the Muslim Brotherhood group called for his resignation. MP's from Mr Hosni's National Democratic Party joined the uproar saying Mr Hosni should not have talked about religious matters.

Analysts say NDP lawmakers wanted to show that the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, is not the only protector of Islam. The Islamist group have always been criticised for mixing religion and politics. The minister was also quoted saying, "There was an age when our mothers went to university and worked without the veil, it is the spirit that we grew up with".

But sheikh Salah Nassar, senior preacher at Al-Azhar mosque, one of Islam's oldest centres for religious learning, disagrees: "My mother, your mother wore (the) hijab. All our mothers wore (the) hijab."

External influence

In the past twenty years Egypt has seen an Islamic wave due to the influx of Egyptians into the oil-rich Gulf states. They returned home richer and more religious. Sociologists estimate that more than half of Egypt's Muslim women wear a headscarf. Even the Saudi Arabian full black cloak, the abaya,
crept into the Egyptian closet.

Most Muslim scholars, like Sheikh Salah, say wearing headscarves is a religious obligation for women. But some Muslims like renowned novelist Miral Al Tahawi argue that it's not: "It's over! It's not a uniform," she says. "I'm not supposed to dress like women from four centuries ago in order to be a Muslim."

Meanwhile, the adamant minister neither resigned nor apologised for his remarks but promised to set up a cultural-religious committee to oversee ministry publications. And on Sunday MP's will question Mr Hosni on his remarks. He probably hadn't seen it coming but he still maintains that "Islam is not a dress, it is far beyond appearance".

Reem Nada

© Deutsche Welle 2006

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