As a kid in America, I was a “brain” or the “religious girl”. Later on in Egypt as a university student, I was the half-American girl who had a weird Egyptian accent. I’ve been called too conservative by liberals and too liberal by conservatives. When I worked as a journalist with IslamOnline, I was labeled by non-IOLers as an “Islamist” journalist even though I almost completely avoided writing about religion. And right now I think I’m just confusing people as they are finding it more and more difficult to place me in a convenient box.
I’ve avoided making today’s confession for many years. Most people I have worked with since I started my career do not know this side of me. And I’ve hid it to avoid further judgments, labels, and categorizations.
But the time has come. Blog posts come to me like labor. The water breaks and the words pour out. No matter how hard I resist, they are going to come out and be delivered, gosh darnit!
So here it is:
I wore the face veil for eight years.
This confession comes because I am now sufficiently angered by what I’ve been reading in the media for the past couple of years by writers who clearly know absolutely nothing about women who wear the face veil or why they choose to do so.
These women must be saved, the main message seems to read. They are being forced into submission, writers suggest.
I wore the face veil when I was 19 and continued to wear it till I was 26. During that time, many of my friends wore the veil as well. My experience and that of many, many women who wear the veil in Egypt and many other Arab countries is not what the mass media and some European governments want you to believe.
For the women who have freely chosen to wear a face veil, I write this post.
My university years were my years of attempted piety. While some students started exploring socialism and others liberalism, I gravitated towards Islam and Islamic thought. I read book after book after book. My main goal was to try to become close to God; to be pious. I prayed extra prayers, read extra Qur’an, memorized Prophetic Hadiths, and learned about Islamic morals and tried to practice them.
I arrived in Egypt wearing a small head scarf and long skirts. By my 2nd year of med school I had started wearing wide dresses and very long scarves. And by my 3rd year I was convinced that to become even closer to God I’d wear the clothes worn by the Prophet Muhammad’s wives. My own personal conviction was that this was not an obligation. I did not have to wear a face veil to be close to God. But the idea of following in the footsteps of the Prophet’s wives attracted and comforted me. If anything, it was a sunnah, a practice from the time of the Prophet, I believed.
My father, a conservative Egyptian Muslim, was dead-set against it. He gave me lecture upon lecture about how the face veil is not obligatory and is not appropriate to our times. He would not give me his permission to wear it. Being the person I am and always have been, however, I really wasn’t waiting for anyone’s permission. I wanted to wear the face veil so I was going to wear it. I wore it despite my father’s absolute disapproval. My brother, who is two years younger than me and who was living with me in Cairo at the time, was clearly ashamed of me and my new dress code. He couldn’t stand to be seen with me. I believe I annoyed him to no end.
But I was happy. I felt that this step, among many others I had been taking, was bringing me closer to God. In one way, it was a way for me to challenge every instinct a girl of that age has in her: to be pretty in front of guys and draw their attention. I’ve always been a real flirter. The face veil hid my facial reactions and obliged me to shoulder the responsibility of respecting the dress by being more respectable in my actions. This is what I believed. This is how I approached it.
I write these words and hear all the arguments against them. I do not wear the face veil any longer, also out of conviction. I even have my own questions about the head scarf. But my convictions now and my current questions in no way undermine my convictions then. I am as free now to believe what I believe as I was free then to believe what I believed.
Wearing the face veil in Egypt did not hinder me in any way from being a productive individual in Egyptian society. I went to med school and graduated with a B average. I was liked by most of the girls I interacted with, regardless of their own dress code. When I started interacting with patients, I cannot remember a single time male or female patients displayed any signs of being uncomfortable with the way I dressed. During the one year of internship where I actually worked as a doctor, all my colleagues, senior residents, and professors, male and female alike, treated me kindly and with respect. I was even the favorite of some of them. The resident doctor when I was in my OBGYN rounds taught me every single thing he knew. Yes. I delivered babies wearing a face veil. No. The veil did not hinder my sight. I always kept a wide opening in the brow and eye area. Yes. I did scrub in properly and wear sterilized clothing while still covering my face. All doctors did, for goodness sake. They wear face masks!
I drove while wearing the face veil. I went horseback riding while wearing the face veil (and man did the tourists love taking pictures of me when I went horseback riding near the Pyramids). One evening, I even raced another veiled colleague down the long corridors of Cairo University Hospital to kill the boredom of a long night shift. Once, I threw myself in the Mediterranean Sea for a dip…yes…wearing the face veil. I went shopping wearing the face veil. I went to restaurants wearing the face veil. I was a fully functioning member of society – wearing the face veil.
If a woman is not used to wearing it, of course it’s going to be tedious. Of course it’s difficult to imagine what it must be like hidden under all those layers of clothes. But for a girl who is completely used to it, it becomes second nature.
My husband married me as a woman wearing the face veil. He was looking for a bride, and a girlfriend of mine recommended me. He came to my home, passed my father’s initial interviews, and we met – without the face veil. I met several suitors without the face veil. Anyone who passed my father’s arduous interviewing process was allowed to meet me “face-to-face”. Over a period of a few months, my husband-to-be visited almost on a weekly basis. Eventually we fell in love and announced our engagement. Shortly afterwards we were married.
I decided to remove the face veil after I gave birth to my third daughter, Somaya. The main reason for removing it was that I had been getting repetitive bouts of allergic bronchitis for several years and I was desperate to do anything to stop them. One doctor suggested that I might be allergic to the synthetic fibers in my face veils. All at once, I removed the veil and all wall-to-wall carpeting in my apartment. We also moved to Germany for a year shortly afterwards, where there is less pollution than that of crazy Cairo. And I took large amounts of anti-allergic medicines for several months. I still get allergic bronchitis every now and then. But since then there has been a significant difference in the length and severity of the attacks.
When I discussed removing my face veil with my husband, he had absolutely no advice to give me other than: “Do what you think is best for you and what makes you feel comfortable”. It was completely up to me. He didn’t mind either way.
In all those years, only once do I remember being treated badly for wearing a face veil. When I entered my 3rd year parasitology lab, the female professor yelled at me. “Either take off that veil or leave this lab at once,” she screamed. Why? I asked. “You might be a man for all I know,” she said. At that time, the Egyptian media had started reporting about a few cases where men disguised as women wearing full body veils robbed people. I was furious. “You can tell from my voice that I’m a girl,” I retorted. “You can take me into a corner anywhere in the lab and verify my identity,” I added. In the end, she allowed me to stay. But that would not be the end of it for me. I wrote a letter to the editor of Al-Ahram Newspaper describing what happened to me as a huge injustice. Its publication was followed by one of Egypt’s most distinguished columnists of the time commenting on it.
Relate to me as I relate to you
Having said all this, I can completely understand how shocking the whole concept of the face veil must seem to many people from many backgrounds in many countries. To many people, it goes against every single thing they believe in. I repeat: every single thing they believe in.
I can even relate to how strange it must seem to the French to see a woman walking along the Champs Elysee covering her face. I’ll bet it’s just as strange as it is for me and my children to see topless women walking along the beaches of Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt. But my country allows it. And that’s that. I live with it. It’s called tolerance.
All this is not an argument for or against the face veil. I have absolutely no desire to get into that argument. And I am certain there are many women out there in the world who are forced to wear it or are forced to wear a head scarf. But there are just as many women out there who wear either/both because it is their choice. By wearing it, they are not announcing they are a lesser gender. By wearing it, they are not submitting to the wishes of a family member who has a sick need to prove his manliness. By wearing it, many women are simply expressing their right to choose.
So please leave them be.