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A veiled hint of hell

Egypt
Women
Religion

During an automobile trip to Mansoura, several hours outside Cairo, I had the opportunity to hear some women students’ attitudes towards the veil.

The road to Mansoura followed the tortuous route of the Nile, where numerous groups of colourfully dressed women were at work on the river bank. Not only were they unveiled, but their dresses were frequently pulled up above their knees as they waded in these ancient waters, cleansing their families’ clothes for the coming week.

These images flew aggressively in the face of the notion that women’s bodies must always be camouflaged to avoid provoking sexual desire in the men whose eyes might otherwise behold their nakedness. I also saw numerous women picking cotton in the fields, and working in the brick-making plants at the side of the road, transporting and stacking the heavy bricks just as efficiently as the men with whom they worked.

One of the young women with whom I spoke during this journey along the Nile wore jeans and a sweatshirt. She looked very much like the students in my classes at San Francisco State University. When I questioned her about the relationship between the veil and women’s sexuality, she said that men generally seek women whose sexual conduct is precisely the opposite of their own: ‘The veiled woman covers herself and is guaranteed to be of good morals. This is a problem for me, because I have to prove that I am as good as she is. I have to prove that I am not a bad girl, that I do not go around with men, that I can be interested in serious things.’

When I asked her why she had opted against wearing the veil, she hastened to point out that her reason was unusual:

‘Maybe I am only one out of 100 girls who does not wear the veil because I do not believe in God.’ This explanation took me by surprise because I had been warned that, of all the prevailing taboos, the one surrounding religious belief was respected by virtually everyone. Of all the women I met, she was the only one who announced herself as an atheist.

Her friend, Randa, presented a different interpretation. She said that it was misleading to consider the veil simply as a visible symbol of adherence to Islam: ‘The veil now means nothing more than the norm. It’s the majority who wears the veil. If you wear the veil you have no problems. Before, it was the other way around: the veil was the challenge. My aunt was one of the first girls who wore the veil, and everyone was against it – even her mother, who was quite religious.’

Abir, a recent sociology graduate, also argued that the veil should not be assumed to have only religious significance: ‘It is the only thing you can cling to during turbulent social conditions. It is something solid for some people.’

Another friend, Naula, argued that the veil calls attention to women’s readiness to consider themselves sexual objects for men:

‘In this day and age it is an expression of being ashamed of your body. How can women deny they are sexual objects if they cover their hair, their arms, their legs? The body is still there, the contours are still there. A man who wants to enjoy a woman’s body will still enjoy it, whether or not she is wearing the chador. Veiled women still have men walking behind them in the streets, making comments.’

But Abir spiritedly disagreed: ‘If you saw the expression on a man’s face looking at a woman’s behind in a short, tight skirt, you would really envy the veiled woman. It’s terrible the way that men now look at women s bodies.’

Indeed Naula recalled a situation in which she was made to feel utterly embarrassed by a veiled woman: ‘I remember once we were standing in front of the university on a particularly hot summer’s day. A girl passed by wearing the type of veil that covers the face; she was also wearing gloves. In fact she was totally covered except for her eyes. Someone remarked that it must be unimaginably hot for her. After walking a few steps, she turned round and said: ‘It is hot here now so that you can imagine what it must be like in hell.’

Angela Davis teaches Black Philosophy in universities and colleges in California, but is best known for her active opposition to racism, classism and sexism, which has led to her arrest and imprisonment in the US. Her first book, Women, Race and Class, was published in 1982.

New Internationalist issue 149 magazine cover This article is from the July 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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