Egypt: Taking to the veil?

Ulhas Joglekar uvj at
Thu Mar 22 17:52:54 MST 2001

The Hindu on

Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Taking to the veil?
By C. Raja Mohan
CAIRO, MARCH 19. Is Egypt, one of the most secular societies in West Asia,
becoming more Islamic? Some Western analysts of Egypt argue that the nation
is turning towards Islam, quietly but surely. But the leading lights of the
intelligentsia here insist there is no Islamisation of Egypt by stealth.
For outside observers, the extent of the use of the veil is often the
crudest indicator of the degree of conservatism in an Islamic society.
Unlike Saudi Arabia or Iran, where women are obliged to cover themselves in
black, Egypt is very liberal. You hardly see any Egyptian woman with the
nakab , a face covering veil.
But the use of the hejab or head scarf, has become widespread. Egyptians
concede that the use of the hejab has increased over the years. Even in
Cairo University, more than half the girls wear the head scarf. Many women
wear jeans or western dresses along with the hejab.
The use of the hejab ``is by choice'', says Dr. Kamilia Shoukry a senior
functionary of the Alliance for Arab Women. This sentiment is echoed by
many. For activists like Dr. Shoukry, the question of the veil is a
distracting one.
There are far more pressing issues to focus on - expanding employment
opportunities for women, ensuring they are not discriminated against in the
race for high level jobs, and making divorce laws more equitable. On the
status of women, Egypt is surely one of the most progressive states within
the Islamic world.
But whether Egyptians are becoming more Islamic is a question that cannot be
skirted. A very recent book by Ms. Geneive Abdo, a Western correspondent
based in Cairo during the mid 1990s, suggests there is an upsurge of a
grassroots Islamist movement in Egypt. In No God but God: The Triumph of
Islam in Egypt, Ms. Abdo argues that a very unique model of Islamisation has
emerged in Egypt.
Ms. Abdo suggests that the religious transformation of Egyptian society has
happened peacefully in the form of a popular movement from below. This
movement, she believes, has become an alternative to the secular state but
not a vehicle for its overthrow. This process, she says, has occurred
largely because of Egypt's own history and the special conditions that do
not exist elsewhere in West Asia. Abdo argues that Egyptian society has
unambiguously rejected the extremist forms of Islam. But at the same time
the Egyptian people, including large numbers in the middle class, have
turned toward religion. This grassroots movement does not want to return to
the medieval ages, Abdo says. Instead it believes Islamic principles are
compatible with the demands of the modern world.
The proposition of a quiet Islamisation, however, is not accepted by the
leaders of Egyptian society. ``Egypt has always been deeply religious,''
said Mr. Nabil Osman the very articulate spokesman of the Egyptian
Government. ``But it is also middle-of- the road Islam,'' with a deep
aversion to extremism, he added. Asked whether Egypt was becoming more
conservative in religious terms, Mr. Osman said the state ``cannot interfere
with religious conservatism''. But ``it will intervene against terrorism and
In the last few years, Cairo has cracked down on all religious extremist
organisations. While crushing the extremists and terrorists in the 1990s,
Egypt wooed the moderate Islamic forces. As a result, political Islam has
been checked in its bid for power, but the Islamisation of society has
gained ground.
Nothing illustrates the changing equations between the secular state and the
religious establishment than the growing weight of the Al Azhar seminary in
Egypt. Nearly a thousand years old, Al Azhar is widely respected in the worl
d as the ``Vatican of Islam''. Students from all over the world come here to
study Islam, and views of Al Azhar are much sought after on a variety of
theological questions.
Under Presidents Nasser and Sadat, Al Azhar was largely reduced to providing
religious sanction to the actions of a secular state at home and abroad. For
example, Al Azhar endorsed Sadat's Camp David accords with Israel in the
late 1970s. Faced with the political threat from Islamist organisations in
the last decade, the state has progressively allowed a stronger voice for Al
Azhar in national affairs.
The state today retains considerable leverage with Al Azhar, in having the
right to choose its head as well as providing finances for its activities.
But traditional secularists in Egypt worry that in many areas like
education, media censorship, women's rights and intellectual freedom, Al
Azhar has begun to constrain permissible activity.
While many Egyptian liberals believe the state has steadily retreated from
secular principles in its accommodation of Al Azhar, others see no real
threat to secularism in Egypt. Cairo clearly is engaged in a delicate
balancing act - of preserving the traditional liberalism in Egypt while
accommodating moderate Islam.
Shaikh Mahmoud Ashour, the deputy head of Al Azhar, received us at the
seminary's administrative headquarters in the heart of Cairo. He broadly
endorsed the policies of President Mubarak's government, emphasised the
``centrist'' nature of Egyptian Islam and the rejection of terrorism by Al
Azhar. Shaikh Ashour also condemned the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas
by the Taliban. He pointed to the non-sectarian nature of the teachings at
Al Azhar and its recent expansion in the areas of modern education such as
engineering and medicine.
But on women's issues, there is no running away from the conservatism of Al
Azhar. On the question of donning the veil, Shaikh Ashour said Islam only
demands that women fully cover their body except face and hands. He declared
that covering the face with the nakab is ``not obligatory''. But on hejab,
or the head scarf, he suggested the opposite - wearing it may not be a
matter of choice, but a duty. No one, of course, is forcing hejab on
Egyptian women. But the state has certainly stopped discouraging it.

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