Polemics on Veiling Egyptian Women in the Twentieth Century Essay

“.. so much energy has been expended by Muslim men

and then Muslim women to remove the veil and by

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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

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.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

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

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).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

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

Eugénie 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 Clément. 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

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 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.

In the seventies, Egypt witnessed what was described as a revival of

indigenous Islamic values. Some of the reasons given for that include: the

defeat of 1967, the collapse of Nasser’s Arab nationalist dream, the waste of

the Yemeni War (1962-67), the failure of Nasser’s socialist contract, Sadat’s

insecurity vis-à-vis the leftists and encouragement of the Islamic current

declaring the new label of “Dawlet el Ilm wal Iman” (The State of Science

and Faith), the petro-dollar coming with its agenda, the economic crisis and

the rising inflation rate, and the sense of corruption caused by the open door

policy “Infitah” which enlarged the gap between the rich and the poor. All the

above made people seriously consider returning to religion, the only solid

ground available after all these changes and disillusions.As women are the bearers of culture, an avalanche of books was published

outlining what is to be expected from a true Muslim woman. Hijab was the

hottest issue, it is a tangible aspect of faith, so it should be a starting point for

any true believer. Following is a summary of the ideas shown in some books

Because of Malak Hefni Nassif’s opposition to unveiling, her ideas were

re-published in 1976 by a writer called Abdel Aal Mohamed El Gabri. The

writer selects what to put in the book, and comments on what she says,

putting attractive titles that would appeal to a conservative reader such as

“The Corrupted Morals of the Educated Women”, though what is written

under this title does not denounce educating women but simply differentiate

between learning sciences and being morally disciplined. He would also

attract the misogynous type of a reader by a chapter entitled “The

Misbehavior of Women” in which she criticizes some qualities that may be in

the woman’s character such as ignorance or snobbery.Ni’mat Sidki wrote her book “El-Tabarruj” in 1975, she argues that God has

punished her for immodest dress and use of make up by an inflammation in

the gums. She writes: “I am a sinner deserving this punishment and more, for

the mouth which God has disciplined with illness and pain wore lipstick and

did not command the good and forbid the evil…” (Hoffman-Lad P. 29-30).Sidki resorts to Harb’s interpretation of holy text concluding that God forbids

women from displaying their bodies to preserve the society from the harms

In 1978, El-Gohari, in a book dedicated to Hassan el Banna, the founder of

the Muslim Brother’s Group, illustrates that Hijab means covering the

woman’s beauty (Ziena) and segregation from men. He puts two conditions

for women’s education or work: sex dichotomy and women’s veil (El Gohari

P. 43). El-Gohari asserts that there is nothing to argue about as far as the

Hijab is concerned, women should veil, period. He quotes a Hadith cited by

Fatema that when the Prophet was asked which is best for the woman, his

answer was that “She should not see nor be seen by a man” (El-Gohari P.44). (The same Hadith was discredited by Fahmi Houeidi in Al-Ahram article

in 1996). He dedicates the biggest part of his book to denouncing women’s

El-Bahi starts his book in a way similar to that of Talat Harb, the first half of

the book is dedicated to denouncing the Western woman, drawing an image

of a society rife with homosexuality, pre-marital sex, infanticide and adultery.The second half targets the feminist agenda articulated by groups during the

first half of the century such as equality in inheritance, in taking her opinion

(al shoura), in marrying without a “wali”, in having a judge to effect divorce

and polygamy, and equality in testimony, concluding that Islam does not

butter women with hypocrisy, but gives them all their due rights, and hence

there can never be more rights to claim.

The avalanche of such conservative ideas and the prevalence of the veil has

alarmed secular feminists like Nawal Al-Saadawi who published in 1972 “El

Mara’a wal Gins” (Women & Sex) denouncing the conservative ideas that

“disguise” itself in religious jargon (Researchers of El Maraa Al Gadida,

1995) . In another booklet, she argues that since rural women who constitute

80% of the population are never veiled, then, according to the conservatives’

logic, this majority of women are corrupt and immoral, a conclusion that can

not be true (Hoffman-Ladd P. 35). In 1996, Al Saadawi published a short

story in Al-Ahram newspaper, allegedly a true story of one of the cases who

came to her as a psychiatrist, the story implies that the veil and the rigid

patriarchal family authority lead to psychological distortion and sexual

repression. Though, she never says these words, the story is full of

metaphors implying the idea. The protagonist is a veiled girl who dreams of

Noah arch leaving her out crying and agonizing her doom. The girl would fall

in love for a Pharoanic statue and the story ends with her throwing the statue

away and falling apart. Whether it is a true story or not, it carries

Al-Saadawi’s message and counter argument against the veil. The story was

refused by all publishers and seems to have reached Al-Ahram after a long

Prevalence of the conservative ideas of the seventies books made the veil

question become as best described by Fadwa El Guindi’s statement: “A

woman in public has a choice: either looking secular, modern, feminine, and

passive (hence very vulnerable to indignities), or becoming a religieuse (a

Muslim Sister), hence formidable, untouchable and silently threatening” (El

el-Sha’arawi is a popular Islamic thinker and vigorously promotes the veil in

its modern sense. In 1980 he argues in his book “Al Maraa Kama Aradaha

Allah” that when the woman is not veiled, she is displaying her beauty

seducing those who can not afford to marry. Since those young men can not

marry and have for example to wait till they finish their education, they will

have to resort to sin to fulfill this desire. Hence, women’s unveiling pollutes

the society and leads to immorality. He further argues that when the woman

takes the veil, she protects herself from being compared to a younger or a

more beautiful woman, and if the husband does not see any other woman but

his wife, he will desire no woman but her. (Hoffman-Lad P. 31). So,

according to el-Sha’arawi, women’s veil preserves the family and protects

the whole society – nothing can be more important, and the price is not so

Defying an argument that Hijab was introduced by the Mamluk to protect

girls from being kidnapped, he says that even if this is the case, we still need

to protect the girls from being kidnapped in the streets of Cairo by veiling

The same argument that a female’s dressing code is responsible if she is

kidnapped or raped is echoed at an Al-Shaab article on 12/13/92, and later in

Al Ahram on 5/16/97 by Abdel Wahhab Metawei in Barid El Gom’a, in reply

to a mother’s problem whose daughter was raped because of her immodest

Sound Tracks Sold in front of Mosques (1997)

Sheikh Kishk, died few years ago, starts his tapes with a prayer containing

“Ostor Awratena” (God to cover our weaknesses / pudenda), the word

“awratena” is a loaded term as the translation indicates, and whether he says

it or not, the word has a notorious connotation with a woman’s body as

explained in the vernacular section. He laments the good old days when

things were cheap, when women stayed at home and obeyed their husbands,

comparing it to women who (in a sarcastic tone) want to have the right to

divorce themselves. Kishk puts four pre-requisitions for women to go to

heaven: to pray five times a day, cover her hair, cover her pudenda, and

obey her husband. He does not tell where he got this combination from, most

probably, it is an outcome of his speculations. Kishk’s theatrical

performance, audio dramatic effects, overwhelms the audience, leaving no

Wagdi Ghoneim, in a tape entitled “Solouk El Okht El Moslima” (The

Behavior of the Moslem Sister), starts off the tape with a quotation “Every

new innovation is Bida’a, and every Bida’a is from the Satan”, the new

innovation he is referring to is women’s unveiling and leaving the house. That

was just the introductory phrase. He then moves to the name of the tape: he

says that he had wished to call the tape (The Behavior of the Veiled

Woman), because “unfortunately” there are women who are still unveiled,

and hence, are unworthy of advice. The tape is well focused and logically

constructed (in contrast to Kishk’s which moves from one topic to the other)

on the expected behavior of the veiled woman and her language in the street,

in public, in family occasions, with neighbors, in means of transportation and

at work. The number of do’s and don’ts reached at the end of the tape is

alarming, one feels like the preacher wants to control and put constraints on

every single move or word of the woman. His justification to these

constraints is that the veiled woman is an “ambassador” of Islam. This way

he overweighs small errands and everyday activities turning them into

representation missions that should strictly follow complicated protocols. The

word “awra” is again used extensively, every unveiled woman has her “awra”

seen by strangers. Even the veiled who is not orthodox enough, leaving her

neck, ears, a part of her legs or arms seen, has her “awra” seen by others.This way every part of the body, except the hands the face is “awra”, the

power of using the word is in its connotation with sexual organs, it may be

acceptable that the arms be seen but if they are as sacred as the sexual

organs, then letting them to be seen is a big crime.The hijab in Schools and the Nikab Universities

In 1994, Dr. Hussein Kamel Bahaa’ El-Din, Minister of Education, fueled

the battle on the veil with decree No. 113 preventing school administrations

from imposing the hijab on girls. Given the symbolic importance of the veil,

the decree mobilized many writers attacking or defending the Minister’s

What made things more difficult was a fatwa issued by an-Al Azhar

committee denouncing the Minister’s decision and considering it as an assault

on the religious teachings. The thread was picked by the government’s

opposition, and papers like Al-Ahrar came out with titles like: “The Volcano

of Anger sweeps Egypt because of the Minister’s decree .. Parents beg to the

Minister to have Mercy .. The Minister is appealing to the lime lights with his

decree …” (Al-Ahrar Sept. 5, 94).

The whole issue was turned into a political issue, it was not a matter of

wearing the veil or not, the Minister’s decree did not say that girls should not

wear it, he said that parent’s approval should be obtained first. Yet, given the

political tension between Islamic groups and the government, the decree was

considered as an aggression on the later’s domain specifically within the

administration of the schools which impose the hijab sometimes on girls who

The Minister had earlier problems when he insisted that “Monakabat” are not

allowed inside university campuses unless they show their face to security.This decision has stirred the many of opposition groups who took it into their

shoulders to write the story of any Monakaba who was denied the right to

get into campus with great sympathy in their papers.Abdel Azim Ramadan, a historian with many publications, takes part in the

debate. In an articles published in “October Magazine” on September 4, 94,

Ramadan took the Minister’s side, against the fatwa. He starts (a bit on the

defensive) by saying that he was a graduate of Al-Azhar, is indebted to this

educational institution and has nothing against it whatsoever. Ramadan treats

the Azhar fatwa as a political act inciting the people against the Minister and

embarrassing the government, putting a precedence to counterfeit any other

minister’s decision and threatening the government’s autonomy. For the rest

of the article, Ramadan tries desperately to put the veil issue in its place as a

personal religious decision, arguing that it is only one aspect of religiosity that

can not substitute the other aspects, he reiterates that the decree did not

prevent girls from wearing the hijab, it just prevented the administration from

imposing it by putting the condition of the parent’s approval. Finally, he

argues that the Islamic groups’ opposition to the decree is because they want

to have the authority to impose a dress on girls that would even transgress

On August 24, 94, and within the same context, “Akher Sa’aa” presents a

book review of “The Responsibilty of the Muslim Woman in Structuring the

Family and the Society” by Mohammed Bahy el Din Salem. The title of the

article (written in a big font) was “All Religions have called for the Hijab ..Unveiling is due to Ignorance of the True Teachings of the Religion”. The

book as reviewed by the article is full of quotations from the Bible, the Old

Testament and of course the Quor’an, concluding with what is in the title.Saied Ashmawi and Tantawi (August 1994)

Within the great commotion caused by the Minister’s decree, Saied Ashmawi

wrote in Rose-al-Yousef an article declaring that the Hijab is not mandated

by Islam, interpreting three Qur’anic verses: Ayet El Hijab, Ayet El Khimar,

Ayet El Galaleeb, and some of the Prophet’s Hadith, and concluding that the

hijab phenomenon is an expression of politicized Islam and is being used as a

tool by the leaders of Gamaat Islamia. Tantawi, then Grand Mufti of Egypt

replies advocating Hijab interpreting the same verses, and denying its

connection with whatever is called “politicized Islam” as he puts it. The

debate goes on, but unfortunately ends up with the two sides discrediting

each other, and that was the sad end of the debate.

O ye who believe! Enter not the dwellings of the

Prophet for a meal without waiting for the proper time,

unless permission be granted you. But if ye are invited,

enter, and when your meal is ended, then disperse,

Linger not for conversation. Lo1 that would cause

annoyance to the Prophet, and he would be shy of

(asking) you (to go); but Allah is not shy of the truth. And when ye ask of them (the wives of the prophet)

anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain. That is

purer for your hearts and for their hearts

Ashmawi interprets this verse as binding only to the wives of the prophet and

not to any women. It even does not include the concubines he took giving the

Hadith told by Anas Ben Malek that when the Prophet married Safia ben

Yehia, people knew that he is taking her as a wife not a concubine when he

veiled her (put a curtain is the literal translation). Tantawi argues that

Ashmawi’s interpretation is wrong and that the Hijab applies to all women, it

is a religious doctrine (Hokm Share’ie)

Works Cited

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. Cairo: The American University
in Cairo, 1992.Amin, Kasim. Tahrir El-Mara’a. Cairo: Oriental Library, 1899.Ashmawi, Saied. “El-Hijab Lais Farida.” Rose-al-Youssif 6/13/94 1994:
22-25.Ashmawi, Saied. “Al-hijab Lais Farida Islamiah.” Rose-al-Youssif 6/27/94
1994: 81-83.Ashmawi, Saide. “Lagnet el Fatwa el Shara’ia bel Azhar Gheir Share’ia.”
Rose-al-Youssif 8/22/94 1994: 28-31.Badran, Margot. Feminists, Islam, and Nation. Princeton, New Jersy:
Princeton University Press, 1995.El-Bahi, Mohammed. El-Islam Wa Itigah El-Moslima El Moa’sira. Cairo: Dar

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