CAIRO: Over six years ago, I sat in a Zamalek café with an American journalist discussing my decision to wear the veil.
It was more than a year after Sept. 11, a time when the Iraq War – as part of the ongoing, American-led “War on Terror – was just a possibility and there was a renewed interest in the region which wasn’t limited to politics.
At the time, youth experimenting with religiosity – whether spiritually or through reviving rituals – due to the influence of young preachers, led by Amr Khaled, or a mere social phenomenon, was the talk of town, and the world was paying attention.
The mix of politics and religion thrown into the background of world affairs was too tempting to pass up.
Like anthropologists, journalists from all over the world were probing Muslim culture, society, and mentality in a quest to find answers. Satisfying answers. And there I was: the subject of an experiment, a scientific query, just like a guinea pig.
The journalist, who worked for a California-based newspaper, asked me if my decision to wear the veil was motivated by an urge to emphasize my identity – my Muslim identity – during an imminent clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.
Yes, he contended, the scarf covering my hair is a political and religious statement. What else could it be?
Baffled by the mere assumption, I admit I didn’t do a good job explaining that hijab and politics are not necessarily synonymous, at least not in my case. Women don’t think of George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair and Bin Laden when they decide to take the veil.
I won’t even bother explaining why I decided to wear it. Reasons can be personal, spiritual, religious or even social oppression; one thing I learned from this interview and continuously over the past six years is that regardless of what I say or what argument I make, people will always reach their own – often preconceived – conclusion.
This is of course in addition to the associated set of beliefs and expectations of what I, as a veiled woman, should and should not do. There’s an unspoken consensus – surprisingly shared by some people in the Middle East and in the West – on how tight/loose my clothes should be; how I should act (or better still, how I should behave); where I should hang out; how I should think; and how I should judge other people and their actions. The list goes on ad nauseum. Of course if I dared challenge these ‘stereotypes’ I would get into one of those meaningless, fruitless discussions that usually end with eye-rolling. Not my eyes.
During this interview, the journalist was looking for a particular answer and was adamant on getting it. He wasn’t in Cairo to make a discovery; he was here to confirm the conclusions he had reached in California.
Fast-forward six years and I’m still finding the same attitude from locals and westerners alike, in spite of the reverse in trends.
Many of those who donned the veil in the late 90s and early 2000s are now taking it off.
So it seems that those who said the veil was a temporary social phenomenon that highlights the superficiality of young people’s new-found interest in religion have now been proven right. Religion for those adolescents – now in their twenties – was their own perplexed way of finding meaning in their lives, a product of the exploitation of religious leaders in search of followers and profit, according to one argument I came across.
Maybe they are right. And maybe not.
My advice: Before you welcome the women who shed the veil into the hall of emancipation fame or kick them out from the sisterhood of heaven, try talking to them; and do it without that condescending attitude that turns many of them off. Most importantly, do it without the urge to find proof in their answers for your own pre-constructed conclusions.
Many friends who have recently taken off the veil have cited “conversations, where they were subject to irrational judgment and patronization, as a reason for why they don’t want to discuss their decisions anymore.
Having your life and your decisions reduced to a mere statistic to help support or undermine opposing arguments, is not funny. The women, who are used as abstract subjects in debates about Islam, the West, oppression and democracy, are certainly not laughing.
When you ask them why they decided to wear the veil and why they took it off, you’ll get two different sets of stories every time. Under the category of personal reasons, you’ll find information to fill notebooks. Then there are the social circumstances: family, work, relationships; as well as the religious element versus the spiritual. The amount of variables involved would render narrow generalization both impossible and futile.
At least for now.
To avoid the ever so tempting attitude that marred how people perceived and judged women’s decisions – including mine – to wear the veil a few years back, try a different approach this time around.
Sarah El Sirganyis the Deputy Editor of Daily News Egypt.