Reflections on My Journey With and Without the Headscarf

I need to think out loud. I’ve found blogging my thoughts helps me work through them. Most of the time I receive very helpful comments on the things I blog about. These comments are read and much appreciated even if I don’t always reply to them. Sometimes I don’t reply because I’m mulling over the things that people have said. Of course, other times I receive quite hurtful and judgmental comments. But even these are helpful. It’s good to know where societies stand on certain issues. It’s good to know where work needs to be done to create positive change.

I had a long conversation last night with a very good friend of mine. It was about the hijab; that piece of cloth that covers a woman’s hair. Many of you will recall the blog post I wrote in which I admitted that I had experimented with taking my hijab off during a trip to Europe. That post received more than 68,000 views since it went online and more than 450 comments. Clearly this is a topic that many people find important, whatever their reasons.

Since I wrote that post, I will now admit that I have continued to experiment. My experimentation the first time was mainly to try to see if complete strangers, in a European country, dealt with me differently with and without the hijab. I was raised to believe that the hijab protected women from the evil stares of men. The hijab allowed people to deal with me not because of my beauty but because of my personality and what was in my head. I wanted to know if this was true. The result of my European experiment was that there was no difference. People did not look at me or treat me any differently because I was wearing the hijab or because I had exposed my hair. The treatment in both cases was almost exactly the same. Since then, whenever I’ve been to Europe and when I’m not in the presence of people I know who I feel may be judgmental of me, I continue to not wear the hijab. This time though, I’m experimenting with my own feelings about this. I know that people in a European country could care less whether I cover my hair or not. But do I care? How do I feel? And what are my feelings about doing the same thing in an Arab country? Or in the midst of people I know?

This is what I’ve learned about myself so far: (more…)

A Woman’s Right to Independent Adulthood

I’m feeling angry. And when I’m angry, I write. It’s the only way I know to release my frustrations out onto the world.

The topic for today is societal control. I know of no way to get to the point of what I want to address other than by giving an example or two.

Example number 1: I have a couple of friends who wore the hijab (a scarf that covers the hair) and then decided to take it off. Both describe very uncomfortable situations where they were criticized and judged for this decision. Yet at the same time, if a woman decides to wear the hijab in Egypt, she will also in many circumstances find herself judged by other members of society for becoming too conservative. And yet other women who never wear the hijab find themselves sometimes criticized for being loose or without moral values. And still other women who decide to cover their faces are labeled extremist by many members of our society.

What is this obsession with what women wear for goodness sake??

Example number 2: I also have some girlfriends who are in their 30s but because they are not married they live with their parents. It is almost unheard of for an Egyptian woman, no matter how old she might get, to live outside of her parent’s home unless it is in her husband’s home. Although it is nice that women are taken care of – to an extent – in our society, the downside is that the woman’s independence is seriously compromised. Even if the families allow the woman to be independent, society and its harsh judgments will affect the woman’s decisions and actions. A single Egyptian woman will find it difficult, for example, to come home too late. This is not necessarily because her family prevents her. It could very likely be because she doesn’t want the neighbors or the doorman to talk and spread rumors about why she stays out late. A woman’s reputation in Egypt is everything.

There are so many examples one could give.

My question is: At what point is an Egyptian woman considered an independent, mature adult who has the right to make her own decisions and live her life the way she sees fit?

Why do I even have to ask this question?

And as I continue in my angry, emotional rage, I’ll ask more questions:

Why is it that women in particular are so strongly judged for almost any action they take by the society they live in? Even more infuriating is that these judgments are made both by men AND women.

Why is it that a woman’s reputation can be so negatively affected because of her personal decisions about how she wants to live her life or what she wants to believe?

Why is it that once this reputation is affected, all aspects of her life – including her career and her relationship with work colleagues – might also be negatively affected?

When will the day come when a woman’s personal decision is left at that: a PERSONAL decision and it is no one else’s frickin business!

There are also much simpler examples, but also very telling. After I returned from my Kilimanjaro trip, many women told me that they would love to go out and do something of their own but that they can’t because their husbands would not allow them to. Would not ALLOW them to?? What kind of a shame is it for our society that a 40-something-year-old woman is either being “allowed” or not to do something she feels she needs to do? I am not in any way suggesting that spouses should not discuss things over. But there MUST be an age when a woman is mature enough to make her own decisions? There MUST be!

A woman is more than capable of considering all the issues at hand, the advantages and disadvantages, the impacts of her decisions on her family and how to put in place the mechanisms that will keep the family strong and happy even as she allows herself some degree of independence.

So what if a woman – maturely and independently – makes a decision that others find to be non-compliant with their religious values? It is that woman’s decision and it is her right to decide what her values are. You stick to your values and your religious beliefs. I’ll figure out what mine are and try to stick to mine. Or I’ll change them as frequently as the leaves change on trees. It is no one’s business.

Time for a confession: I wore the face veil for eight years

The moment I click “publish” on this blog entry, the judging will start. I do not enjoy being judged, although I should be accustomed to it by now.

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.


Jogging along San Diego Bay: I Want a Yacht

Now that I’ve finally bought a pee funnel, I think my next big purchase should be a yacht. This thought occurred to me while jogging along San Diego Bay. This is not the first time I’ve thought this. I think it every time I take a short sailing trip down the Nile in Cairo as well. I think I deserve a yacht.

Jogging along the Bay, I tried to catch as many yacht names as possible. Those yacht owners really don’t have any imagination at all. Sur la Mer, Days at Sea, Aqua Mara…really?? If I had a yacht I’d name it Shaitan (devil in Arabic), after my sister’s favorite rental horse. It would be a wild and devilish yacht, it would.

I loved jogging along San Diego Bay. The whole lifestyle they have here is just amazing to me. I started out at 6:30am. I was awake at 4 am (jet lag), but decided it would be prudent to wait till the sun came out before I left the hotel. But by the time I started, there were Californian joggers who seemed to have been at it for quite some time already. There was one group of about ten men and women going up and down a long flight of stairs at the San Diego Convention Center. Those stairs would have been just perfect for my Kilimanjaro training. What amazed me more was the ages of some joggers. I saw several older men and women. One looked like she might be around 65 and she was in GREAT shape. Another man who was probably 55 was a LOOKER. He was all-round muscular and showing it by wearing a no-sleeve T-shirt and shorts. Whew! And those gray hairs only added an extra coolness factor to the man.

My hat goes off to the women who had male jogging partners. I have no idea how they keep up with them. I’ve long since realized that what I do isn’t exactly jogging. Every single person I’ve ever seen jogging passes me by quite easily. But I don’t mind. What’s important is the thought. And I THINK I jog.

I even got two “good mornings” from complete strangers while I was jogging. Both were African-American men. The first was an older man who clearly finished his morning jog and was winding down. He seemed genuinely happy to see me. Other joggers didn’t seem to find the fact that I was a fully covered veiled woman jogging along San Diego Bay an oddity at all. Everyone just went about their morning business. I am not used to this. I jogged along the Atlantic Ocean while spending a couple of nights in Galway, Ireland last summer. The Irish looked as if there was an alien in their midst. I was the oddest thing they had ever seen and they couldn’t get over the fact. In France this past summer, I jogged a bit downtown. The French female joggers just seemed angry with me for even thinking that I could occupy the same space as them looking the way I did. All this is much better than any reaction I’d probably get jogging on the open streets of Cairo. I haven’t dared try even. I expect I’d be harassed, yelled at, or get glaring gazes of disgust. Today when I saw the 65-year-old female jogger, I started wondering what it would be like to see a 65-year-0ld female Egyptian jogger on the streets of Cairo in shorts and a T-shirt. Have you seen our 65-year-old women? Have you seen our 30-year-old women for that matter? Not something you’d want to see in a T-shirt and shorts, I promise you. No offense mes comrades. But it’s true for the vast majority.