CAIRO — I wore the hijab — a
form of dress that comprises a head scarf and usually also clothing that covers
the whole body except for the face and hands — for nine years. Put more
honestly: I wore the hijab for nine years and spent eight of them trying to take
I chose to wear the hijab at age 16, soon after my family moved from Britain to
Saudi Arabia. I wanted to save my sanity, and so I struck a deal with God: I’d
cover up, as I was taught a good Muslim girl should, if God would save me from a
breakdown that I was sure would come in that country where women were considered
the walking embodiment of sin. I wanted to hide — from eyes and hands that made
going out anywhere, especially unaccompanied, hellish.
Almost immediately, I missed the wind in my hair. When I caught my reflection in
a window, I did not recognize myself. I wanted to reconcile the internal and
external me, but I was to discover that choosing to wear the hijab is much
easier than choosing to take it off.
I finally summoned the courage to stop wearing it in 1993, when I was 25 and had
moved back to my birthplace, Egypt. For years, despite my inner doubts, I
represented to others my choice to veil as a feminist one. If a woman could
choose to wear a miniskirt, surely I could choose to cover my hair? I wanted
people to address my mind and to not objectify me, I would say. Ultimately, I
could not sustain that line of thinking because, as a feminist, I demanded that
people address my mind and not objectify me, regardless of how I dressed.
What helped me part ways with the hijab was a conversation my mother had with a
family acquaintance. Asking after my brother and me, the man wondered if I was
married. When my mother said I wasn’t, he replied: “Don’t worry. She wears a
head scarf — she’ll find a husband.”
Then I understood: I wasn’t the hijab poster girl I thought I was. I was just a
After I unveiled, I remained overwhelmed with guilt. For years, I would not tell
anyone that I’d once worn a head scarf.
To write about the hijab is to step into a minefield. Even among those who share
my cultural and faith background, opinions veer from those who despise it as a
symbol of backwardness to those for whom religion begins and ends with that
piece of cloth. And while a majority of women in Egypt today are veiled, that
hasn’t always been the case: The pendulum swings.
When I was a child in Egypt, none of my aunts wore head scarves. Photographs
from family weddings in the 1970s show aunts with bare heads and dresses, at
times standing next to belly dancers who sparkled in beaded bikinis and gauzy
chiffon barely covering their legs. In today’s weddings, most of my aunts and
their daughters are covered up, and there are no belly dancers.
I had one aunt, four years older than I, who adopted the hijab at age 17, in
1980. When we would go out walking, strangers would look aghast and spit
insults: “What the hell are you doing?” “What is that tent you’re wearing?”
Decades later, in Cairo, such public abuse is hurled at women like me who don’t
There are many explanations for why women veil themselves. Some do it out of
piety, believing that the Quran mandates it for modesty’s sake. Others do so
because veiling visibly proclaims their Muslim identity. For yet others, the
veil is a way to avoid unwanted attention and gain some freedom from harassment
in public space that has become increasingly male-dominated.
The rise of Islamism, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has
increased the prevalence of veiling. Often, the Islamists’ social control has
been boosted by regimes that were nominally secular but promoted the same
conservative values to burnish their religious credentials.
In 2005, I went to interview Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the Muslim Brotherhood’s
spiritual leader at the time, in Cairo. I expected to be asked to cover up;
whenever I’d interviewed Brotherhood leaders before, I’d been handed a scarf to
wear. This time, though I was dressed in a T-shirt and trousers, the aide who
ushered me in did not give me a head scarf; I was pleasantly surprised.
I asked Mr. Akef if the Brotherhood, should it ever govern Egypt, would change
the Constitution to curb women’s rights — for instance, by making the veil
mandatory. He insisted that the Brotherhood believed in pluralism and inclusion.
Then the dialogue took a strange turn.
“And as proof,” he said, “you are here interviewing me, and you are naked.”
“I am not naked.”
“Your hair is naked, your arms are naked; according to God’s law, you are
“The verses in the Quran regarding women’s dress have been interpreted
differently,” I said.
“Don’t listen to those who try to say the hijab is not mandatory. There are no
different interpretations. There is just one interpretation and, according to
that interpretation, you are naked.”
So much for pluralism. This is our version of the sort of “purity culture” that
is promoted everywhere by the religious right, with its obsession with women’s
bodies, its notion of modesty that unfairly burdens girls and women and its
glorification of female virginity.
But the political revolutions that began in 2010 in the Middle East and North
Africa have also inspired us to challenge social mores long taken for granted.
Because I have finally been open about the fact that I once wore the hijab, I
have heard from more and more women who want to unveil. “How did you take it
off?” they ask. “How did you handle family pressure?”
For some who are rejecting the hijab, it’s their first public appearance without
a head scarf in five or 10 years — in one case, 30. Many directly link their
unveiling with the revolution and their personal understanding of freedom. What
happens in Egypt influences the rest of the region; I see the pendulum swinging
the other way again.
My head scarf came off 22 years ago, but I have never stopped wrestling with
what veiling means for Muslim women. Authenticity is about more than a layer of
cloth on one’s head. To be acknowledged as more than our head scarves is the
right of every Muslim girl and woman.
Mona Eltahawy is the author of the forthcoming book “Headscarves and Hymens:
the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.”
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A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 11, 2015,
in The International
New York Times.
A broad code of conduct governing all aspects of life, from
dietary rules to the wearing of the hijab, which Muslims can choose to adopt in
varying degrees as a matter of personal conscience.
Where does sharia law come from?
Sharia, meaning "way or path to the water", is derived from interpretation of
the teachings of the Qur'an, the Hadith (the sayings and conduct of the prophet
Muhammad) and fatwas, a type of jurisprudence of the rulings of Islamic scholars
over many centuries.
Are there different interpretations of sharia?
There are five different schools of interpretation: one in the Shia tradition of
Islam and four in the Sunni tradition. Middle Eastern countries of the former
Ottoman empire favour the Hanafi doctrine and north African countries prefer the
Maliki doctrine; Indonesia and Malaysia follow the Shafi'i doctrine; Saudi
Arabia adheres to the Hanbali doctrine; and Iran follows the Shia Jaafari
school. All the schools are similar, but some take a more literal approach to
texts while others prefer a loose interpretation.
How is it applied in sharia states?
Sharia can be formally instituted as law by certain states and enforced by the
courts. Many Muslim countries have adopted elements of sharia law governing
issues such as inheritance, banking, marriage and contract law.
What are hadd offences?
The popular understanding of sharia law in Britain - such as the stoning of
adulterers or the severing of a hand for thieves - relates only to a very
specific set of offences known as hadd offences. Although the penalties for such
offences are not universally adopted as law in most Islamic countries, these
have become a potent symbol of sharia law.
Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, claim to live under pure sharia law and
enforce these penalties for hadd offences. They carry specific penalties, set by
the Qur'an and by the prophet Muhammad. Offences include unlawful sexual
intercourse, the drinking of alcohol, theft and highway robbery.