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ICC NOTE: The trend towards more conservative dress for women in Egypt is an indicator that Egypt is not moving progressively to bring religious freedom for all, including Christians.

Behind which veil?

Mail and Guardian | Cairo , Egypt

October 26 2006

To veil or not to veil is no longer the question in Egypt . From abject neighbourhoods to chic suburban enclaves Muslim women are instead mulling whether to opt for a strict coverall, or a hipper headscarf.

After three decades of Islamic revival, bare-headed women have become a slender minority — and many of them are Coptic Christians, who account for only a small slice of the country’s 77-million-strong population.

Whether out of ideological or religious reasons, social or family pressure, about 80% of Egyptians now wear the veil — the “most successful and the most troubling sign of Islamisation”, according to sociologist Mona Abaza.

Officially, the veil is neither outlawed as in Turkey , nor a required accessory as in Saudi Arabia or Iran . Egypt ‘s first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, does not wear one. And out of the country’s two female ministers, one wears a less conspicuous bonnet.

The president of the country’s leading television station, Nadia Halim, recently began veiling. But so far no female television news anchor has followed suit.

But on the streets, veiling is no longer a subject of debate.

Rather it is the palette of headscarf options mirroring traditionalist or modernist Islamic currents. Only young girls escape the veil — and not always.

Gone are the days when women brazenly removed their head coverings — as prominent feminist Hoda Charaoui did, stirring a furore on her return from a visit to Europe in 1923.

Today, battle lines are instead forming around whether to adopt the sombre-hued, face-covering niqab, ostensibly in the name of Islam and personal choice.

Her face framed by a blue headband under a white veil, the Muslim reformist claims that “hiding women’s faces is not in the Qu’ran, it’s an old Bedouin tradition.”

Among the conservative vanguards are former immigrants from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States , many of them village women, who have brought back a puritanical, segregationist lifestyle.

But female Islamist militants are also championing the veil as a religious obligation in universities — even as they advocate the role of women in a larger political battle against the Egyptian regime and the West.

On the other end of the spectrum lies the face-framing hijab, or more relaxed hair-covering headscarf, as a colourful fashion statement. Twinned with jeans and short-sleeved shirts its message mixes Islamisation and globalisation.

It’s a message also sent by popular televangelists, like Amr Khaled, who preach a new image of women. These new religious leaders have also spawned mushrooming “halaqat” religious study circles, gathering bourgeois Cairo residents.

Also popular is the veiled doll, Fulla — the Islamic world’s answer to Barbie, banned by Saudi police as a “Jewish doll” ostensibly sporting the scandalous clothing of a perverted West. – Sapa-AFP