As Egypt moves to write a new
constitution, many are looking to
secure more rights for women.
That effort comes after decades
of growing traditionalism in the
country, including more use of
Islamic veils. Many Egyptians do
not see any contradiction,
however, between the increasing
use of veils and the push for
more women's rights.
All across Cairo, women of all
social and economic strata are
wearing various types of Islamic
veils - and the practice has
increased markedly in recent
Nearly 100 years ago, Egyptian
women fought to get out of the
But Egyptian Sociologist Saad
Eddin Ibrahim said the practice
has made a comeback.
"Well, first of all, the observation
is accurate, that there are more
women in veil, or behind the veil,
than ever there were in modern
Egyptian history," said Ibrahim.
Professor Ibrahim wrote a book
about the early days of the return
of the veil among students and
professionals 30 years ago.
"The veiling was, in a sense, a
compromise to be able to
participate as fully as possible in
public life without being
perceived as lacking in ethics or
morality or being loose. If veiling
is the price, many women, many
young girls, have accepted to pay
that price," said Ibrahim.
That is evident on the streets of
Cairo, where lawyer Noha Samir
said she has been wearing a veil
for many years.
"A hijab looks nice and makes me
feel comfortable. I am committed
to Islam, but I can also follow
fashion - within limits," she said.
Other women have adopted the
veil later in life, like social worker
Magda Abdo el Zayad. But she
said her unmarried daughter
already is wearing one.
"As we got older we started to
learn about things, about our
religion that we did not know
growing up. But my daughter is
already veiled. Even when I urge
her to go out sometimes without
it, she refuses. She says she
would feel naked."
Experts say some of Egypt's
increased social and religious
conservatism came from Saudi
Arabia, conveyed by millions of
Egyptian men, who went there to
work and came home with
different views of how women
But Azza Soliman of the Center
for Egyptian Women said the
change also came from women
themselves, and is related to the
country's recent history.
"There was a gap between what
the people needed and what the
government provided, so many
people turned to religion to fill
the gap," said Soliman. "And
many women chose to express
their new religious feeling by
putting on the veil."
But most Egyptian women do not
wear the full 'niqab,' which
covers all but the eyes. Most wear
some version of the 'hijab,'
covering the hair and neck.
And many are quick to point out
that they can be fashionable,
even with a veil.
"Why not be elegant and at the
same time be veiled? Why not?
The hijab does not have to limit
you," said homemaker Samia
"Just because a person is veiled
doesn't mean she wears bad
clothes. There is also very good
clothing for the veil," said Dina, a
Newspaper editor Rania Al Malky
said for her, there is no conflict
between being covered and
being a successful professional,
or a political activist.
"To me, I don't think this in itself
represents anything really in this
society. On the contrary,
sometimes women feel
empowered by their veil because
it protects them somehow from
being targeted. Some of the
leading youth figures, who are
women in the youth movement
that led to this revolution, were
young, veiled women," said Al
Veteran Egyptian Journalist
Hisham Kassem agrees that
what's important is not a
woman's clothing, but rather
whether she has full rights in
"In some cases you had women
who were not veiled, but
basically played no role in society.
But when I see veiled a woman
who's out there demonstrating,
this is somebody on the move to
play a role," said Kassem. "The
attire is not going to be the issue
here. It's the role they are going
to play. And that eventually will
lead to full equality, as opposed
to women simply taking off the
veil, but playing no active role."
That does not conform to
Western ideas about women's
liberation. This woman was
detained by police in France in
April for wearing a veil, in
violation of a law designed to
promote women's rights.
As Egyptians work their way
through the early stages of
democracy, though, many believe
the veil can, and even should, be
part of it.