Why I Won't Veil
Published On 11/17/2006 3:31:03
NADIA O. GABER
I went to Egypt this summer to
learn how to speak Arabic. What I learned instead was how to cover up, to be
invisible, to preserve my “moral reputation.”
All I wanted was to learn the language that would let me break through the
barrier that separated me from my grandparents and extended family. But I
quickly discovered that the streets of Cairo had other lessons to offer, whether
or not I was willing to learn them.
In the Egyptian capital, a wardrobe malfunction is not an accident—it’s a sin.
My public crime—by which I mean three centimeters of exposed hip—was apparently
atrocious enough to warrant a complete stranger yanking my t-shirt down and
proceeding to shoot me a look of disdain that—at one fell stroke—dismissed me
based on nothing more than the clothes I was wearing.
But the Egyptian taboo against baring even the smallest bit of skin runs much
deeper than mere cultural norms; it is rooted in religion. One does not need to
travel to Cairo to witness it—the hijab, or headscarf donned by millions of
Muslim women throughout the world, including close family members of mine, is
increasingly visible in Western cities, even Cambridge. Scholars, feminists, and
Muslims have grappled with the necessity and advantages of veiling, but I had
never been forced to truly consider the issue in a personal light until this
The Arabic hijab, which literally means “veil,” “curtain,” or “partition,”
refers both to the covering itself and the practice of decent living associated
with the Muslim belief that modesty is venerable in all facets of life. Although
the ideal is a standard to which both men and women are held, the physical
covering of the hair and body is almost exclusively required of women.
Dressing modestly was always a practice espoused in my house, but the decision
about what to wear was a personal matter that was settled when I walked out my
front door. How promiscuously I chose to dress was between me and my God
(although my parents rarely resisted commenting), and had never before become
the business of the anonymous public. Dealing with a country where the opposite
is true was the defining challenge of my summer, and prompted a period of
self-reflection that has become a turning point in my spiritual life. Before
this summer, I was too afraid to sincerely question something as holy as
religion or second guess the personal choices that people make based on
religious beliefs, but I have of late decided that I not only have the right to
question Islam, but an obligation to do so when I think it is necessary.
As to the question of wearing the hijab, my answer is, simply: no.
What I may have “lost” in literal religiosity, I have more than won back from
engaging with the tenets of my faith. The granddaughter of a veiled woman but
thoroughly Tennessean in birth and rearing, I often struggle—here in America—to
reconcile a system of doctrinal conventions with the modern life of a
twenty-something college student. Striking a balance between parents’
expectations, peer pressure, personal desires, and the judging eyes of a global
religion on everything from alcohol to sex to appropriate clothing is a constant
and unresolved internal “jihad.”
Religion is a mutable concept in the Gaber household. Having one Muslim and one
Christian parent—each from very religious but significantly different
backgrounds—meant that the issue was polarizing and thus, rarely forced.
Religion was a guidebook for living morally but never a checklist for acting
“correctly.” While a headscarf was therefore never on my parents’ agenda or even
on my radar when I was growing up, I realized this summer that the hijab is
omnipresent in many peoples’ lives, whether they like it or not.
It’s ironic—though the justification for the hijab is to make women less
preoccupied with their looks, I have never been more conscious about my
appearance than I was in Egypt. Because I am of Arab descent, foreign eyes gazed
more keenly at me—at how much skin I showed and how much makeup I wore—than they
did at my white friends, although their U.S. passports were no bluer than mine.
Equally perceptible were the unabashed stares of lust, constant catcalls, and
unsolicited conversations, winks, and even physical contact, as if choosing to
show an inch of skin—i.e. my ankles—entitled men to unwanted advances and women
to judgmental looks. I could never walk down the street alone without a
constant, infuriating paranoia that had me counting down the hours until my
flight home. It made me resent Egypt and Islam in general, but I always had the
comfort of knowing that I would eventually return home. For millions, that
paranoia is an inescapable daily reality, and the consequence of a sad social
phenomenon that has long been due for reform.
Needless to say, religion tenaciously resists change—especially a religion that
is under constant political attack and has become almost reactionary in
response. The problem lies in the impression that to believe, you must also
adhere literally to the holy text. While well intentioned, that notion does a
disservice to God by underestimating and neglecting his greatest of creations:
mankind’s faculty of reason. Holding oneself to conventions that are impractical
(imagine long sleeves or even gloves in the 120-degree Saharan heat) and
anachronistic is illogical and unnecessary. It’s funny—up until this summer, I
would have been outraged by that statement, but now I see that it is true, yet
often unrecognized: Modernization is not the enemy of culture, nor is it
blasphemous to admit that your religion is ultimately fallible. A far greater
sin than showing off my arms would be to fail to confront the tenets of my
religion which repel me.
But even sadder than those who are compelled to wear the hijab by social or
cultural pressure are those who are not permitted to decide for themselves at
all. I have a veiled friend whose sister decided to wear the hijab at the age of
five to emulate her older sister, and has not removed the scarf ever since. The
little girl’s resolve is certainly remarkable, but her motivation, given her
immaturity, is still troubling. What sexuality does a five-year-old have to
There is obviously no universal reason women decide to veil, but most see it as
a combination of fulfilling an explicit obligation to God and as a protection
against the unsolicited gazes that I so vehemently loathed in Egypt this summer.
Those who wear the hijab believe that in doing so, they literally wear modesty,
humility, and purity on their sleeves. But the idea that any woman should have
to limit her personal freedom in order to gain the ability to move through
society unmolested is one that I will never fully understand.
Egypt has seen a rise of religious conservatives (and with that, of veiled
women) in the past 50 years—a phenomenon that has been attributed to everything
from a reverse-Orientalist political reaction to the reclamation of the hijab as
a symbol of female empowerment and choice. Neither justifies what I see as a
physical symbol of self-denigration that, consciously or not, has kept women in
the Arab and Muslim world in a subordinate social position as a whole.
The hijab presupposes that women cannot be in the presence of men in a
non-sexual context, which is also insulting to the men assumed to have no
control over their desires. It has become the elephant in the room, actually
serving to shift our focus towards sex, rather than allowing each individual to
be appreciated for their mind and not simply their body. I wish the woman on the
street in Cairo this summer had understood that, and saved me the anger of
having my shirt tugged in public by a stranger. But I am thankful that she
forced me to analyze that anger and to confront religious beliefs that I now see
are as gossamer as her headscarf itself.
Nadia O. Gaber ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history and literature
concentrator in Kirkland House.