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Polemics On Veiling Egyptian Women In The Twentieth Century Essay, Research Paper
“.. so much energy has been expended by Muslim men
and then Muslim women to remove the veil and by
others to affirm or restore it ..” (Ahmed 167).
This paper explores these efforts in two specific stages: the first and the last
thirds of the twentieth century. Through an analysis of some of the various
arguments on the veil, I will try to induce some general characteristics of the
debate on the issue and on women during these two specific periods of time.
The starting point will be Kasim Amin’s “Tahrir el Mara’a” (Liberation of
Woman) and the counter argument of Talat Harb’s “Tarbiet el Mara’a wal
Hijab”, (Educating Women and the Veil). The debate between those two
protagonists which has become a “prototype” of the debate on the veil
throughout the century (Ahmed P. 164). Malak Hefni Nassif’s and Hoda
Sha’arawi’s attitudes towards the veil represent an interesting insight to two
different interpretations of the hijab issue by feminist activists that prevail
throughout the century. The whole synthesis of this early debate is then put
in juxtaposition to the debate later in the century as represented by the
avalanche of literature on the topic in the seventies, the views of some
famous sheikhs like Mohammed Metwally el Shaarawi and others, and the
heated debate initiated by the Minister of Education’s decree of 1994 to
prevent school administrations from imposing the hijab on girls as part of the
The Early Debate
Kasim Amin’s Tahrir El-Mara’a (Published 1899)
It may not be an exaggeration to say that Amin’s “Tahrir al-Mara’a” was one
of the most controversial book in Egypt’s modern history. It has ignited a
strong debate and prompted more than thirty reaction articles and books
either to defy or assert his argument against the veil (Ahmed P. 164).
The ideas of the book were not totally new, they echoed the writings of some
writers like Mariam al-Nahhas (1856-1888), Zaynab Fawwaz (1860-1914),
Aisha al-Taymuriah (1840-1902), and Murqus Fahmi’s (a Coptic lawyer)
four act play “Al Mar’ah fi al-Sharq” or (The Woman in the East) (Badran P.
19). Yet, Amin’s book double-scored for coming from a Muslim judge and
for his overt proposal to unveiling women’s faces. His words were not the
only challenge to the existing notions of the hijab, it was his caliber as a
Moslim judge that has vocalized his call to unveil women and gave his book
After an introduction loaded with emotional phrases on the degradation of the
Egyptian woman and an exaltation of the European woman, the book is
divided into four sections: “Educating women”, “Women’s veil”, “The
woman and the nation”, and “Marriage and divorce”.
Amin starts his argument calling for the “Hijab Shara’ei” stating that the
Hijab in its form then (covering the face, the hair and the whole body) was
not mandated by the Shari’aa. He further adds that he was not calling for the
“extreme” of the West which “makes the woman liable to seduction” (Amin
P. 65). The argument against the veil is in two sections: The religious section
which is mainly text interpretation and some Hadith that prompt women to
cover the hair and the whole body except for the hands and the face; and the
“social” (practical / everyday life) perspective. The later section includes
“social” ideas such as the inconvenience for women with their faces covered
to dwell in business, to testify in courts or to get engaged (as the groom
should see her face first). Furthermore, he argues that unveiling would make
women watch their behaviors as they could be recognized and hence their
reputation would be at stake if they did any wrong. Still, from the practical
“social” point of view, the flimsy bourqo’ (face cover) used was more
tempting as it makes the viewer curious to see what was intended to be
hidden. He further argues that, if women are imprisoned in the hareem (part
of the house where women are secluded), then even if they did not commit
any shameful act, it would not be due to any virtue in them, but to the fact
that they did not have the freedom to do otherwise.
Amin accuses the veil of being a barrier to women’s development and
education (P. 85), arguing that it deprived her from interacting with the
society and learning how to live. He illustrates by comparing the ignorant
peasant with the elite urban lady who can speak French and plays the piano,
and concludes that the ignorat peasant would be more capable of coping with
the difficulties of life than the elite urbanite due to the seclusion of the latter.
Talat Harb (1867 – 1941)
In his introduction, Talat Harb states that the main purpose of writing his
book was to defy Amin’s argument against the veil. Harb was called “father
of Egypt’s economic independence” and has established the first national
bank in Egypt in 1920. So when someone in his caliber – though it was early
in his career – writes a book, his prestigious position would place heavier
weight to his argument.
In the introduction, he states that the majority of those who read Amin’s
book have denounced its ideas, and then declares the now common notion
that liberating women is a Western imperialist conspiracy. He ends the
introduction with a note that Kasim Amin would not have such hideous goals
in mind, that he wrote his “notorious” book out of a mixture of good will and
misjudgment. Yet at the very end of the introduction, Harb implicitly accuses
Amin of plagiarism saying that the ideas of his book were published earlier in
Turkey and India.
The book is divided into two main sections: “The woman and her role in the
society” and “What moral qualities should the woman have”. In the first
section he states that “women are inferior to men in perception and senses”,
that she has a different “calling” in life than the man (she for the private
sphere, he for the public sphere), and that she should not do men’s job. He
ends this section with the results he perceived out of liberating women in
Europe (immorality, drunkenness, casual relations..). Then he devotes the
biggest section of the book defending the veil (from page 60 to page 105)
concluding that the current veil is not good enough and that women are
wrongly doing their best to show their beauty from behind the veil.
He starts his argument against unveiling with a compelling statement on the
importance of morality, fidelity and modesty. Then he moves on saying that
Hijab is the best assurance for these wonderful qualities, defying Amin’s
religious argument with a different interpretation of the same text the former
had used (same text used by Ashmawi and Tantawi later in the century). At
the end, he puts a logical question: What is better for women to veil or to be
immodest? The question answers itself.
Harb uses the holy text as one source for convincing the reader, he had many
other sources such as a “scientific” research done in Europeby a German
scientist that proved that the German women betray their husbands seven
times in average, the Belgium six times, the British five times … (Harb P.
63). So, if unveiling is to emulate the West, here is the corruption and
deficiencies resulting from the absence of veil. Harb uses the same (social)
practical argument used by Amin yet with different anecdotes, for example
he says that mingling with the other sex will make the woman compare her
husband to a stranger with possible unfavorable conclusions on the first.
Harb laments that the society was much better before the migration of
foreigners attaching their existence with the introduction of legalized
prostitution and the call for unveiling women (Harb P. 97).
Malak Hefni Nassif (1886-1918)
Nassif was the daughter of a follower of Mohammed Abdou and one of the
early female teachers for five years before she got married to a tribe leader in
Fayoum. After marriage, she realized that she was a second wife, the
discovery was distressful to her, and she seems to have experienced chronic
depression as expressed in her words to May Zeiada (El-Gabri P. 11). Nassif
used to send articles to newspapers advocating women’s rights specifically
against polygamy – reflecting her personal experience. In 1911 she sent a
petition to the people’s assembly (was read by a man, as she was not allowed
as a woman to speak in public). The petition included ten recommendations
asking for more education for women, access to mosques, having women
enter the fields of medicine and education, full participation in public life, and
legal protection for women in marriage and divorce. All recommendations
were rejected, yet at least that was a feminist voice heard in the People’s
Assembly (although through a mediator).
Nassif’s position on the unveiling was firm opposition. She does not base her
argument on text interpretation as did Amin or Harb. She follows the “social”
practical line introduced by Amin arguing that although religion did not
mandate the woman to veil, nor that the veil was the proof of modesty, she
refuses unveiling on the basis of the immaturity of the society and the
immorality of some men. She believed that the major interest of the women
who unveil was to follow the fashions and not to seek education as Amin had
argued (Ahmed P. 180).
Hoda Sha’arawi (1879-1947)
Sha’arawi comes from an upper-class Egyptian-Circasian family. She was
forced to marry her cousin at the age of nine while he was nearly the age of
her father. At the age of thirteen, she left her husband because of his return
to his first wife. In her early twenties, she accepted to return back to him,
after he promised not to return to his first wife again. Sha’arawi liked to
stress the Western influence on her character and that she had “created”
herself by reading French books and socializing with French women like
Eug?nie Le Brun (Ahmed P. 178). Early in 1909, Sha`arawi with the support
of Princess Ayn al-Haya Ahmed, approached the Cairo University with a
proposal to hold a lecture for female audience at the University hall to be
given by her friend Margret Cl?ment. The topic was a comparison between
the European and the Egyptian woman including a discussion on the veil.
King Fou’ad (then Rector of the University) agreed. The lecture was a
success and was followed by others. Nassif was one the speakers invited
In 1920, Sh’arawi was elected president of the Wafdist Women’s Central
Committee (WWCC) and in 1923, she and other WWCC members created
an independent feminist group called The Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU)
after receiving an invitation from the International Alliance of Women for
Suffrage and Equal rights (IAW) to attend its conference in Rome where they
made their first public declaration of their program. The EFU philanthropic
activities included a dispensary for poor mothers and children, a center for
instruction in domestic arts, a handicrafts workshop, and a daycare center for
the children of working mothers. In 1925 the EFU founded L’Egyptienne ,
the first explicitly feminist journal in Egypt (Badran P. 102). L’Egyptienne
was in Frenche, later in 1937, they issued al-Misriah in Arabic. These two
papers formed a channel for the EFU agenda which mainly included family
laws and education for girls.
While Badran argues that unveiling was never part of the formal agenda of
the EFU (P. 23), Sha’arawi was one of the first women to declare her
denunciation of the veil and to take it off in a theatrical dramatic act in 1923
upon her return from the (IAW) conference in Rome.
Both Sha’arawi and Nassif represent what Laila Ahmed terms as “two
divergent voices” (Ahmed P. 174) within the feminist voices on the veil:
Sha’arawi was a voice connected with the western culture through readings
and friends and consequently advocating Western ideas; Nassif was a voice
representing indigenous ideas, influenced by Mohammed Abdou rather than
western writers, wrote in Arabic rather than in French, and raised issues that
are totally indigenous such as access to mosques.
The Debate Late in the Century
The issue of the veil was not resolved with the unveiling of most urban
women during the middle decades of the century. The issue is back on the
foreground as of the seventies. One basic difference is the definition of hijab
(the veil): early in the century it meant covering the face and keeping women
in the house. Later in the century, hijab meant covering the hair and the
whole body, only showing the hands and face, and not necessarily limiting
women to the private sphere. The new hijab has become, as Macloed puts it,
a symbolic resolution of women’s dilemma of having to work, and feeling
guilty about it. (Macloed P. 120) The earlier version of the hijab is now
called “Nikab” and is adding a new dimension to the controversy on the veil:
a veiled women like Nabila Hassan, the reporter of Akher Sa’a (an Egyptian
magazine) investigating the world of Monakabat treats it as a mysterious alien
world (Akher Sa’a 8/12/92). Preachers and sheikhs, specially on audio tapes,
consider it as a double score for a woman to be monakaba though not
mandated. Opposition Islamic groups found a golden opportunity to attack
the government for not allowing monakabat to university compasses.
The Wave of the Seventies
In the seventies, Egypt witnessed what was described as a revival of
indigenous Islamic values. Some of the reasons given for that include: the
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