The Many Layers of the Veil

Times Staff Writer

She was a 25-year-old journalist with a bare head and big dreams when things started to turn sour.

She got married and ended up divorced the same year. Then the stigma set in. Men knew she wasn’t a virgin and stalked her as easy prey. She lost her job when the editor of her newspaper was jailed. Two years ago, lonesome and aimless, Hoda Abdel Wahab fell into a depression so deep she was afraid of becoming paralyzed.

“I thought, ‘Nothing is worth it in this life, so I’ll go to God,’ ” she says. Penniless, she sold her gold jewelry to buy a head scarf and abaya, or cloak.

Once she took the veil, the harassment stopped. On the streets, she gets only occasional murmurs from religious men: “Peace, sister.”

She found a job, too, selling head scarves and flowing robes to wealthy women in a Cairo boutique. She swears that the transformation sank all the way into her soul. “The problems that really bothered me before disappeared from my mind,” says the now 27-year-old Wahab.

She is one of millions of Muslim women who each day take a very visible side on the emotional, complicated question of the head scarf. Also known as hijab, a generic term for modest Muslim dress, the scarves look like simple runs of fabric but come layered with meaning.

The hijab is an expression of personal devotion to Islam, but critics decry it as an emblem of patriarchal repression. Covered heads can be powerful political statements or simply a fashion trend among teens.

Debate simmers in Islamic communities about whether the hijab is required for women, but the scarves appear increasingly at the crux of cultural clashes -- particularly since Sept. 11, 2001.

Amid anger over the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and ongoing bloodshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the hijab has emerged in the Middle East with deep political significance. For some, the scarves express defiance of American aggression, silent protests against Arab governments that cooperate with Washington or a retort to Westerners’ phobia of Muslims.

To many a wary eye, the hijab symbolizes the systematic degradation of women and provokes fear that Islamic fundamentalism will seep into Western societies. In France, which has struggled to assimilate its Muslim communities, the head coverings and other religious garb were banned from public schools last year. Officials cited a desire to defend the country’s secular tradition.

Muslims around the world -- even those who shun the hijab -- poured into the streets in protest. Militants in Iraq threatened to behead their French hostages unless Paris reconsidered. But in Egypt, the nation’s most powerful cleric scandalized his followers by preaching in favor of France’s banning of the veil.

There are Muslim countries where women have no choice but to cover their heads. Religious police in Saudi Arabia and Iran hunt and even beat bareheaded women.

Yet in Turkey and Tunisia, there is the opposite pressure. The hijab is banned from public schools and offices, and veiled women complain of ridicule and abuse.

What is drowned out by the public outcry and political debate in many countries is the very personal nature of each woman’s decision to cover, or bare, her head.

Some slip into head scarves at puberty without giving a thought to the controversial undertones. Others reach for the veil at a time of pain -- marital strife, sudden unemployment or a midlife malaise. Some women say they covered their hair when they first sensed the inevitability of death, like a lapsed Catholic groping for a rosary on the sickbed.

In Egypt, where the government prides itself on its secular rule but Islam remains the most potent force in private and public life, the hijab is more or less a matter of choice. But on Cairo’s bustling sidewalks, a naked female head has become a relatively rare sight. Schoolgirls bind their heads in white cotton, charwomen use fading polyester, businesswomen look demure in beige. The short, bright scarves of university students seem an afterthought over tight jeans, lipstick and scarlet nails.

Islamic Chic

A few decades back, when a young Omar Sharif heated up the black-and-white screen and Egypt shone as the Arab world’s cultural vanguard, the veil was relegated to the poor. It began to reach the middle class with the Islamist revival of the 1980s and 1990s and has only recently been embraced by Egypt’s wealthy women, who once sniffed at the notion of covering their coiffures.

Cairo’s Al Motahajiba, a designer boutique for head scarves, is one of many luxury shops that have sprouted in the region as upper-class women join their poorer counterparts underneath the veil.

This is where Wahab works: among pink silk carefully shredded to resemble a feather boa and yellow silk delicately embellished with red embroidery. There is cashmere of midnight blue and “Saudi crepe,” a new, wrinkle-free fabric designed especially for veiled women. Silks are flown in from Qatar.

The air in the shop is rich with perfume, and high heels clatter across the hardwood floors. Gentle Muzak is piped in -- “Never on Sunday.”

“Not just anybody can afford these,” murmurs one of the saleswomen, nodding at the shelves of brilliant chiffon and silk. “Only the rich come here.”

Wahab nods and quotes one of Egypt’s most popular preachers, a dapper Muslim televangelist widely credited with coaxing wealthy women to cover their heads.

“Amr Khaled says a woman on the street in hijab is the same thing as a Koran on the street,” says Wahab, whose serious, bespectacled face is rimmed by a black scarf. “He says it’s protection and also a duty that God dictates.”

Dalia Youssef is among the multitudes of women who regard the hijab as a Muslim duty. But the petite, bright-eyed George Orwell and T. S. Eliot enthusiast talks more about freedom than obligation.

She grew up in a household where her mother and aunts wore the hijab, and she perceived it as proud proof of maturity. When she turned 12, she covered her head. “It was childish,” Youssef says now. “I wanted to show I was old enough.”

In retrospect, the 26-year-old Egyptian admits that she was 15 before she came to understand the role of the hijab. It allows her to operate as an equal to men, she says, because it masks her sexuality.

“It’s my evidence that I have a role in the public sphere, because there are a lot of challenges to Muslim women taking part. Maybe religion will be what liberates us. I don’t see it as a burden.”

From a sun-dappled office in Cairo, Youssef heads the Hijab Campaign at IslamOnline.net, a popular website created by young Muslims.

Her page tracks hijab law in all corners of the globe and gives a lesson on penning letters to the editor in protest of restrictions on wearing the veil. It also offers “psychological help” -- advice for veiled women who are ostracized by friends or family, prevented from veiling at work or interested in fighting for their rights in their homeland.

“Sister, return curious glances with a saluting smile; return an insult here or there,” the website counsels. “Then move on and thank Allah the Most High that you are holding firmly to your belief.”

Convinced that globalization has endangered women’s freedom to wear the hijab, Youssef has forged improbable ties with environmentalists, labor organizers and other anti-globalization activists around the world.

“You can’t deal with hijab without all this.” Youssef’s voice trails off as she spreads her cupped hands into the air as if to encompass the whole city, the whole world. “It’s loaded with political, cultural, religious contexts. It’s not just a piece of cloth.”

She’s determined to use the hijab to teach Muslim women how to exercise their freedoms, she says, particularly in the West. The idea of a veiled woman in Egypt toiling to liberate her sisters from Europe’s restrictions may seem odd to Westerners, but to Youssef, it’s perfectly natural.

“This is the hidden or ultimate goal” of her page on the Internet, she says. “To make Muslims use the tools of civil society so they can be Muslims and citizens at the same time. We don’t try to inject people with knowledge, as if we’re superior [or] we’re the ones with the fatwas [religious edicts]. No. We try to open their doors.”

Interpreting the Koran

The origin of the hijab is hard to trace, twining back into long-standing debates over translations of sacred texts and the authenticity of the oral record of the prophet Muhammad, as well as gender politics. But what’s certain is that the tradition of veiling stems from three verses of the Koran, none of which mention the head or hair.

“O Prophet,” reads one verse, “Tell thy wives and daughters that they should cast their outer garments over their persons when abroad, that is most convenient, that they should be known and not molested.”

Another verse says: “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, that they should not display their ornaments except what [must ordinarily] appear thereof, that they should draw their veils over the bosoms and not display their beauty.”

Finally, there is an order to men visiting the home of the prophet. “When ye ask [the wives of the prophet] for any article, ask them from behind a curtain; that is purer for their hearts and yours.”

It is through those words, many Islamic clerics insist, that God has ordered women to cover everything but their hands and faces. The strictest clerics believe even those places are indecent for public exposure, and there are many Muslim women who wouldn’t dream of stepping into the street without gloves and a niqab, or face shroud.

The Koranic commands to veil are buttressed, many clerics say, by a handful of hadiths, the recorded sayings and actions of the prophet relayed by his companions. But other scholars question the authenticity of some hadiths, which were passed orally for generations and are a perpetual source of clerical debate.

In 1994, an Egyptian judge named Said Ashmawi wrote a book that gathered all the religious arguments for the hijab, dissected them and concluded that Islam does not oblige women to cover their hair. His life hasn’t been the same since.

Ashmawi studied at Harvard and rose to become a chief justice in Egypt. But now he is a pariah among Egypt’s Islamists, confined to his home by death threats. A guard is posted in the lobby of his building, and Ashmawi refuses to give his apartment number over the phone.

He is afraid to wander into the city, and not without reason -- novelist Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel laureate and the dean of Egyptian literary circles, was stabbed and seriously wounded by Islamic militants on a Cairo street for espousing similar views.

Isolated and defiant, Ashmawi passes his days in a dim sitting room crammed to fantastic overflow with golden candelabras, glass roses and ceramic apples.

“I don’t want to ban hijab, but I’d like to explain to the people,” Ashmawi says, fluttering plump hands during a recent meeting in his apartment. Islamists “are using their power to impose, and they are distorting our faith. I put legal arguments in the mouths of the people who read my books.”

To like-minded people, the near-ubiquity of the hijab is evidence of a powerful patriarchal system that has imposed tribal traditions on women without religious justification. Ashmawi blames Islamist groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood for turning the head scarf into a “political badge.”

The hijab is important to the Brotherhood, Ashmawi argues, because it keeps up appearances in the streets. “Islamists have to prove themselves, either by beard or by veil,” he says. “They say hijab is a duty. What duty? They want if somebody enters Egypt they will say, ‘Oh, it’s an Islamic country.’ ”

Asked about girls who choose the hijab for reasons of their own -- religious devotion, asserting their Islamic identity, keeping up with a fashion trend -- Ashmawi snorts: “What choice?”

“They are ordered, that’s all. The father, the brother, he teaches her. They are forcing them,” he says. “They are not free, not at all.”

‘To Him I Was Naked’

When Hala Dahroug decided to put aside the veil after wearing it for three years, she was knocked off guard by the response.

She was a 20-year-old Arabic literature student in the sleepy, Upper Egypt province of Beni Suef when her devotion to the head scarf began to soften. It was 1990, and she was intoxicated by the rush of politics, philosophy and leftist ideas that surged through campus.

One day she woke up, left her scarf behind and headed off to class with nothing on her hair but the sun.

The reaction came fast and hard. Students in the conservative Arabic department snubbed her. Her family implored her to go back to the hijab. “My uncle told me it didn’t matter whether I was praying or not, but walking around without the veil meant to him I was naked,” Dahroug recalls.

But she refused to back down.

Looking back now, she says she was young and in a “rebelling phase.” Now 33, she works in television in Cairo and is the divorced mother of a 3-year-old girl. She remains secular and hopes fervently that her daughter won’t grow up to take the veil. Still, Dahroug says, if her daughter wants to wear a head scarf, she won’t stand in her way.

“What I care about is my daughter’s mentality, not what she wears,” she says. “Being unveiled doesn’t necessarily mean you are more intellectual or smarter. I meet unveiled girls who’ve got nothing in their brains, and I meet veiled ones who care about the world.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, her youthful struggles to bare her head, Dahroug turned up at the French Embassy in Cairo last year to protest Paris’ ban on head scarves in public schools.

“The important thing here is freedom of expression and the freedom to practice whatever rituals you believe in,” she says. “Women should choose to wear it or not.”