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Egyptian society divided over Islamic veil

Emad Mekay

The Islamic female veil has again become a bone of contention in this country after Egypt's long-time Culture Minister, Farouq Hosni, joined an international chorus decrying the practice, despite the growing number of Muslim women donning the attire. Hosni last week told a newspaper the veil represents a "step backward".

The Islamic female veil has again become a bone of contention in this country after Egypt’s long-time Culture Minister, Farouq Hosni, joined an international chorus decrying the practice, despite the growing number of Muslim women donning the attire.

Hosni, a mainstay of the ruling secular regime of President Hosni Mubarak, was quoted last week in the daily newspaper al-Masri al-Youm as saying that Egyptian women wearing the veil represents a “step backward”.

His statements were immediately interpreted as a signal that the government may be moving to ban the veil or to regulate its use, as has happened in some European countries and in neighbouring Tunisia.

The culture minister repeated the term used by Tunisian authorities to justify banning the veil mandated by Islamic teachings, calling it “sectarian”.

Other public figures also attacked the phenomenon. Hussein Fahmy, a famous Egyptian director and movie star, described a veiled woman as “handicapped”.

Feminist and journalist Iqabl Baraka said the veil is a remnant of “the dark ages” and vowed to continue to “fight the veil”.

“I feel very saddened to see the veil spreading like this,” she said, referring to the increasing numbers of Muslim women choosing the conservative dress.

Reaction

Reaction to the statements, particularly to those of Farouq Hosni, was immediate in this country where passions can run high.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most popular political organisation, demanded an apology. Islamic scholars from al-Ahzar University, the bastion of Sunni Islam, also denigrated the attacks.

Islamist MPs, the Majlis al-shaab, asked the minister to submit his resignation immediately in a stormy session that saw a group in Hosni’s own ruling party, the National Democratic Party, call for his departure.

Supporters of the veil argue that it is a purely religious matter and say that the veil does not limit women’s rights. Some insist that it gives women greater independence because it prevents men from being attracted only to their bodies.

Although Hosni repeated in an interview on the television channel al-Mehwar that the veil was a sign of “backwardness”, he subsequently explained that this was his own personal view, adding: “I respect the veiled women as this is their choice. We have hundreds of veiled women working at the Ministry of Culture.”

On Tuesday, about 230 intellectuals and artists signed a petition in Hosni’s defence, in which they condemned an “atmosphere of cultural terrorism” in the country.

‘Assault’

The controversy in Egypt, the most populous state in the Arab world and home to al-Azhar University, the first Islamic university, comes at a time when many Muslims here interpret criticism of the veil as part of a Western assault on Islamic symbols that has emboldened local autocrats.

Two years ago, France created a storm by banning schoolgirls from wearing the headscarf.

More recently, last month, former British foreign secretary Jack Straw criticised the niqab, a type of veil that covers the entire face except for the eyes. He said he asks women visiting his constituency to consider removing them.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has also said he believes that the wearing of veils is a mark of separation in society.

In The Netherlands, the Dutch government has introduced a Bill that would ban the niqab, also known as the burqa, which it says disrupts public order and safety. Turkey and Tunisia have also taken steps against the veil.

In Egypt, some human rights groups are defending the attire. The Sawasya Centre for Human Rights in Cairo said in a statement that members of the Washington-backed Egyptian government are in violation of the country’s own Constitution, which mandates freedom of religious expression.

The Cairo-based centre said the government, in its struggle with the Islamists, has crossed the line between politics and religious and cultural life.

Other analysts say the attack on Islamic attire does not bode for relations with Muslims, who already feel victimised by a series of verbal assaults on symbols of their faith in different parts of the world.

“The international conditions and the big wave of anti-Islamism abroad have certainly affected the situation here at home,” said Gamal Arafa, an analyst with the popular website Islamonline.net. “Now it’s easier for others to infringe into sensitive areas under the pretext of the freedom of expression and start throwing out provocative and strange things.”

Arafa said the criticism of Islamic symbols that Muslims hold dear has had a reverse effect, pushing people more toward strict adherence to the principles of the religion.

“Such incidents convince people, many of them already religious and conservative, that there is indeed a conspiracy against Islam both at home and abroad. Some people here could be extreme in their interpretations of those incidents [of attacks against Islam] to prove that they are dealing with non-believers and true enemies of their religion.”—IPS

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