On Aug. 1, Denmark’s ban on the burqa kicked in. A few days later, former British foreign secretary Boris Johnson compared women wearing burqas to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.” These incidents have ignited a full-scale debate over the propriety of Muslim women wearing the full-faced veil in the West.
At the same time, Egyptian actress Hala Shiha sparked another intense debate by taking off her headscarf and returning to acting after a 12-year break. Leftists in the Middle East praised her move, while others said her choice was further fueling Islamophobia in the West.
These twin controversies highlight the politicized nature of the hijab debate, one that serves contemporary political agendas without fully reckoning with the history behind its spread. As a result, the dispute over the garment frequently turns into a debate about Muslims, when in reality it is a divisive issue among Muslims as well.
In the West, the hijab is often treated as a traditional feature of Islamic culture. But in Egypt and elsewhere, widespread use of the hijab is a relatively new phenomenon. This complexity was best captured by the bewildering case of Belgians and Brits debating the use of the full-faced veil, while Muslims in the Middle East were debating a less controversial head cover — both defended by supporters as the hijab mandated by sharia.
The move toward Egyptian women wearing the hijab had a far more diverse array of causes than Westerners might expect: They included sociopolitical and religious events, the growing access to education outside of the elite, migration, the proliferation of private religious media outlets and social pressures to improve women’s chances of attracting husbands. Most significantly, the transformation illustrates how Egyptian society has grown more religious over time, while also revealing that adoption of the hijab isn’t simply a symbol of extreme religion, as critics like Johnson assume.
That becomes obvious if you look at class pictures from Cairo University over the past 60 years. The 1959 black-and-white photo of Cairo’s English department was taken during the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the popular Pan-Arabist leader and proud nationalist who wanted to emancipate the country from the vestiges of colonialism.
Nasser zealously guarded his power, and, after surviving an assassination attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood, he cracked down on them. This drove the Islamist group underground.
In a famous late-1950s speech, Nasser mocked the organization’s leader for demanding an imposition of the hijab, noting that the religious leader’s daughter herself did not wear the hijab. “Why didn’t you get her to wear it? If you couldn’t get your daughter to wear the piece of clothing, you want me to get 10 million [women] to wear them?”
This period also marked the golden years of Egypt’s movie scene, another source of cultural liberalism in the country.
Movies during the 1950s and 1960s portrayed women engaged in a quest for independence. The movie “Ana Hora” (I am free) was released the same year the Cairo University class picture was taken. It focused on freedom and feminism, featuring a main character who dreamed of independence. Actress Faten Hamama also made a big splash at the time with movies highlighting social issues related to women.
This flourishing film scene meant that Egypt drew people from all over the Arab world who wanted to practice the arts. Screens showed scenes of kissing, bikinis, alcohol, dancing and casinos, a sign of growing liberalism in Egyptian society.
The 1959 class photo reflected the culture nurtured both by Nasser and the film scene: The women wore dresses and short hairdos.
But things began to change in Egypt shortly thereafter. In 1967, Israel defeated the Arab armies — signifying the failure of the region’s secular post-colonial regimes. A growing number of people began to embrace religion as an alternative, culminating in the Iranian revolution, the Siege of Mecca by extremists and the jihad in Afghanistan — all in 1979.
At the same time, economic grievances caused many in Egypt to migrate to Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in search of jobs. At that time, the Gulf region was in need of laborers, doctors, engineers and teachers. When they began to return to Egypt, however, they brought with them fundamentalist versions of Islam, such as Salafi Islam, common in countries like Saudi Arabia, and full head covers for women.
During the 1970s, Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, gave the Muslim Brotherhood a degree of freedom, aiming to use the group to help confront communists. He freed members of the Brotherhood jailed during Nasser’s reign.
By the 1980s, the Brotherhood and Salafi influence started to be widely felt in the streets and mosques — especially the Brotherhood’s. Its members blended in easily. Beards were optional and regular clothes were worn. The group focused on educational institutions and targeted the working class. It supported lower classes, through charities and service provision. All of this led to newfound influence.
The second of the university pictures, taken in 1987, therefore, represented the end of an era. Women sported flared pants with big hair — and none wore hijabs. But the photo was deceptive. By the time it was taken, the Muslim Brotherhood’s campaign was succeeding in transforming perceptions of the garment.
The hijab began to appear on campuses across Egypt by the mid-1970s. But as one 1975 graduate explained, “When we saw a woman in hijab at the time we thought she might be an extremist.” Within a decade, however, this woman started wearing the garment herself, revealing the dramatic shift that took place.
By the mid-1990s and early 2000s, businesses motivated by profit, not a desire to proselytize, sensed a hunger for religious content, and pounced. Crucially, satellite TV had just been introduced, bringing to Egypt a number of highly influential religious channels from the Gulf region such as Iqraa, Al Resalah, Al Majd and Al Nas. The channels provided a powerful avenue for religious activists at a time when cinema at home had deteriorated and was often censored under Hosni Mubarak, leaving Egyptians looking for entertainment.
These channels became even more influential as they started to air programming for women, including hosting women to answer taboo questions that male presenters would otherwise evade. Hosts who were once nonreligious adopted the hijab and moved to these channels in search of a far wider audience and a bigger fan base.
But becoming religious was not always what drove women to wear the hijab. Television channels also promoted it as a fashion trend. They offered ways to wear different fabrics and colors, and mix-and-match to coordinate with jewelry and clothing.
Other women wore a hijab to attract interest from male suitors who associated the garment with piety. “During the last year of university, a lot of women would wear the hijab as a way to get men’s attention and get married,” a 2001 Egyptian graduate from the English department at Alexandria University said. “It was normal for this to happen.”
The last of the three university pictures, taken in 2004, reflects these trends. The picture features an array of colored hijabs.
Today, Egypt is in the midst of a new chapter. Under Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the Muslim Brotherhood is in disarray. The state is exerting arguably unprecedented control over religious content. Additionally, the rise of extremist groups such as the Islamic State in 2014 has polarized the Egyptian masses over religiosity.
Those who demand religiosity are also confronting a new challenge. A few women have begun to remove their hijab, just like Shiha. This will undoubtedly produce a new chapter in Egypt’s struggle over the garment.
This complex history exposes how Westerners concerned that wearing a hijab signifies Islamic extremism are misreading the garment’s significance. As the Egyptian case illustrates, women adopt the hijab for complex reasons tied to politics, fashion, entertainment and religion, not simply because they embraced extreme strains of Islam. Policing religious garments represents cultural misunderstanding and bigotry — and it might just lead to more women wearing the hijab over time, as occurred in the wake of Nasser’s repressive regime in Egypt.