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Egyptian Journalism and Hijab

A few days ago, I remarked to Max while reading some article in Al-Ahram Weekly, the English version of the main government paper here, that the level of journalism was pretty horrible.  The articles seemed to constantly be criticizing the Copts or talking about a nascent Shia takeover.  Plus, the writing was absolutely atrocious.  Max told me that the Arabic version wasnít much better.

Iíd been reading Al-Ahram because it was the only Egyptian news source I knew of that published in English beyond the occasional articles in the Times or wire services.  Someone told me the other day, though, about the Daily Star, apparently an independent English daily, and so today I checked it out.  At least on their online version, they simply donít seem to have enough news to fill a daily paper, so I wonder what is in the print copy.  Iíve noticed this problem with Al Ahram, too, and it confuses me - this is one of the worldís largest cities, and ther simply must be interesting things to cover.  Hell, NYC has its own 24-hour news station (though this is not necessarily a positive development).  Some of what is in the star, though, is somewhat interesting.  Itís aimed, fairly obviously, at the wealthy English speaking population in Cairo, so it has articles about mountain resorts and the like as well as stories about human rights issues and societal liberalization that Iím not sure always find a home in news sources aimed at locals.  That said, some of these articles seemed fairly silly or wrong, like one on a ďtrendĒ of girls abandoning the hijab here.  I donít know that I believe in the existence of this trend - most other news sources are still talking about the increasing religiosity of the Egyptian population.

But the most bizarre thing I read all day came from an article on virginity and marriage.  Itís a serious human rights and feminism topic, and therefore one Iím interested in - an accidentally broken hymen in a girl getting married can lead to terrible consequences for the girl, even an honor killing in some places and under some circumstances.  The article in question talks about hymen reconstruction surgery - evidence, I suppose, of the wealthy readers of the paper.  In particular, it talks about the case of one Egyptian girl who had pre-marital sex and is now basically ineligble for marriage.  Ok, interesting.  But the article also contains this account of her story with an absolutely painful final sentence:

When Nada went off to college, she was young, hopeful and innocent. She met Omar in her second year, and believed it was love at first sight. He professed his undying affection for her, and made her feel wanted. It seemed natural to her that their relationship would progress physically as it matured emotionally.

Omar had promised that as soon as he was able to, he would ask for her hand in marriage, but after graduation the two drifted apart.

His promise of forever was broken, and so was Nadaís hymen.

I donít even know what to say.

Also, went to dinner tonight with Reham and had an interesting conversation about hijab.  She is quite liberal and feminist in most ways, but she does wear a headscarf, and so I tried to delicately ask about why it was she decided to do that.  She told me, simply, that she wore it becuase in her opinions the Quran commanded her to do so and that she believed in the Quran.  My own opinions on hijab are somewhat conflicting.  On one hand, I think the American, First Amendment-absolutist part of me finds laws like those that have been passed in France and Turkey banning the hijab in certain places - schools, government offices - are unjustifiable on a free expression basis, and so I oppose them.  On the other hand, it seems to me that hijab canít be separated from the cultureís subjugation of women.  Iím an atheist, and so while I feel that an individualís personal belief that she should wear a hijab is fine, Iím more interested in the societal pressures to cover, which seem to be quite separate from religion.  As with the reasons for FGM - which has no religious basis whatever - the pressures that lead to covering seem to boil down to a societal discomfort with femaleness, especially female sexuality.  Reham agreed that the society seems to not much care for women, but seemed to think that there was, once, a logical reason for the hijab - that, in some historical context now lost the hijab conferred some sort of respect on women.  I fail completely to see what logic could ever have existed, and I reject the argument based on the hijab conferring respect to women for the same reasons that, in Western society, I reject the arguments from anti-feminists who wish to relegate women to certain roles - child rearing, homemaking, etc. - and argue that, in these roles, the women are respected and on a pedastal.  Such respect, when it defines the bounds of what may be respectable, is necessarily subjugative.

I fear Iím not really writing clearly, and I have some trouble talking and writing about this subject.  I donít really feel like Iíve thought it all through, and I have some reservations about making societal criticisms (Reham noticed this when we were talking - she said I was being very careful and politically correct in my speech).  I guess that there is a constant, creeping feer that Iím being imperialistic or Orientalist when I engage in these sorts of criticisms, and I think that for someone in my position it is important to be aware of that risk.  Still, I suppose that I donít believe that you can care about human rights and be culturally relativistic about those same rights, and I believe women donít have enough rights here.

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