A day in Niqab in the midst of the Cairo Salafi movement [Part 1]

Wearing the Niqab in Tahrir Square

The day started as any other. It was a Friday, and I headed down to Tahrir Square in Cairo to participate in the protest to “Save the Revolution”. I bumped into my friend from university, Amina Ismail, there who told me she was going to dress in Niqab and attend a Salafi conference and asked if I wanted to join. I ended up having one of the most interesting days of my life.

There is a lot to write about it, so this post will be divided into several parts.

Part 1: A day in Niqab

Part 2: The Salafis are taking over Egypt

I have always struggled with where I stand on Niqab. On one hand, I consider myself quite a liberal individual and a supporter of women’s rights and equality, so the idea of Niqab always made me uncomfortable. Why would a woman choose to be invisible, not to have a presence, and confine herself in this role? I would ask myself. However, I’m also a supporter of freedom of choice, and the freedom to live one’s own life as they please. So if a woman chooses this, then shouldn’t I be the first to respect that choice and let go of my prejudice? A constant struggle in my mind.

As I started to put on the Abbaya (the black loose curve free dress), the veil and the mask, I was already confused. My veil kept falling apart since I lack the skills to keep it on as I’ve never put on a veil in my life. The Burqa’, which is made up for four layers, two meant to be pulled back, and when in the front they show your forehead and completely cover your eyes. While the other two, are the ones below the eyes meant to cover the rest of the face. Every time I would bend down, or whenever some wind came along, the top two layers would cover my face and in the midst of confusion I’d tell my friends “I can’t see a thing, HELP!”, which they found hilarious every time.

Wearing the Niqab in Tahrir Square

As I walked through Tahrir, a place I’ve been frequently visiting since January 25th and a place where I’ve always felt the most free, all of a sudden a whole new set of feelings washed over me, none of them associated with freedom. I felt hot and uncomfortable. I couldn’t really see properly, and could only smell cloth. I bumped into people I knew, and my initial reaction was to go say hi when I caught their eye. But wait, they had no idea who I was. It was like my entire identity was erased. I was no longer Rowan as I’ve always known her. I was another person. A person who is ultra-religious. A person who chose to hide her identity in public. A person who chose to only be seen by family or another woman. I was someone who always dressed the same. It felt strange knowing that I had on my everyday clothes underneath, knowing that I’m still me, but no one sees it but myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt less special. Even when I went home later dressed like this, my mother didn’t recognise me, not even when I spoke.

As sexual harassment (including groping, cat calling and stares from men) is so common in Egypt. And since I experience  it a lot in the kind of clothes I wear (that are not inappropriate or anything, really) I had heard that women in Niqab still experience harassment, less than us, but it was still there. I was very curious to see peoples’ reactions to me, particularly men’s. In all fairness I didn’t get harassed.  People’s reactions however, were another story. Some completely avoided looking at me or catching my eye, almost as if in fear of me. While others would just blatantly stare right at me in disbelief. There were some who just reacted to me in the same way they probably would have if I was myself though.

What struck me also, was the expectations that are put on a woman in Niqab. My friend Deena, also in Niqab, had her professional camera as we walked around, and was taking photos of the small protest in solidarity with the third Palestinian Intifada. I thought she looked so weird, and so did people around us, who would just pass by and stare. A feeling of guilt swept over me for feeling that way though. I mean, just because a woman chose to wear Niqab, does that mean she has no passions, no interests and no hobbies but praying, reading Quraan or getting married and having babies? I hated myself a little for feeling awkward to her taking photos with that camera. At the same time, I questioned whether it was a fair prejudice to make since the Niqab is not just about what you wear, but rather a series of life choices that come with it. Like when my other friend, Amina decided to put up the Niqab in the middle of Tahrir because she felt too hot and suffocated. A woman and a man sitting next to us on the curb started arguing with her on how she’s misrepresenting Niqab and that she has no right to do this. As we walked away from them, with Amina complaining that they had no right to butt in and tell her what to do, I found myself questioning out loud whether I agreed or disagreed with them. Another mind-boggle.

An intriguing situation happened to us while we were at the Amr Ibn El Aas mosuqe listening to the Salafi sheikhs (of course listening, not seeing, as we were sitting in the women’s section of the mosque where we had speakers that had horrible quality, not to mention the insane amount of kids running around and playing). As we sat there, a woman approached us and asked the three of us “How old are you girls?” and we answered “23”. She explained that she wanted to find a bride for her 38 year old brother, and asked if we knew a “pretty bride” (aka 3arousa Amoura) like us but a bit older. I found this peculiar. She knew nothing about us. All she could tell was that we were religious. And that was apparently all she was looking for in a bride for her brother. I was struck with how different people can be. I cannot imagine anyone looking for my life partner on my behalf. Not to mention that the search would be based on only one aspect I might add.

At the end of the day, I don’t know if I can extract lessons learned from this experience to share. All I can really say is that walking in another persons’ shoes has never felt so real.

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