It was finally time to “do the right thing”

The BBC News Magazine has a longish piece by Shaimaa Khalil about not wearing hijab then wearing it then not wearing it and now wearing it again – in which, bizarrely, she never mentions the actual (and obvious) gender politics of it. It’s just a religious requirement or duty that she either accepts or doesn’t accept, but the content of the requirement/duty is left out.

She talks about photos from the 50s and 60s that speak volumes about social change in Egypt.

There they are in short-sleeved dresses, impeccably cinched at the waist. The dresses of some of the younger ones actually stopped well above the knee. And the hair!

The beautiful and complicated hairdos that my aunties and their friends pulled off just to go shopping or to their universities looked like something out of a vintage glamour magazine.

But times change. In the 1980s and 90s the strict Wahhabi version of Islam was arriving in Egypt – brought back by the millions of Egyptians who’d gone to work in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

Political Islamic movements were gaining ground too, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. Soon all the adult women in my family were wearing the headscarf or the hijab.

She says it’s a long and complicated debate, whether or not hijab is “an Islamic obligation for women” – but she doesn’t ask why it should be an obligation for women alone.

I didn’t start wearing the headscarf until I was in my 20s – and I wasn’t forced to do it – despite several years of pressure from my mother.

“What are you waiting for?” she’d ask. “What if something happens to you? Will you meet God looking like this?” she would say, pointing at my trousers or T-shirt.

Sometimes I would nod, smile and walk away. On other occasions I’d fight and argue.

But deep down it was becoming ingrained in me that wearing the headscarf was the right thing to do. So, towards, the end of 2002 I decided it was finally time to “do the right thing”.

But why? “The right thing” how, and for what reasons? Why was it becoming ingrained deep down? What was the substance of those arguments? Why resist, then why give in?

She doesn’t say. She started wearing it; she moved to London and worked for the BBC.

Then, last year, I went through a very personal and private journey of questioning many things about my religion: about practice and belief, what was I doing out of conviction and what out of habit?

How much of my faith did I want to exhibit? Would I, I asked finally and crucially, be any less Muslim if I took off the headscarf?

The final answer was no.

So, after months of indecision, the day came when I’d decided to remove it. It took me hours to get dressed and when the time came when I’d normally put the headscarf on, I just didn’t.

But why? Why didn’t she? She doesn’t say. The whole thing is weirdly emptied of content and discussed solely as an external.

Now she’s going to Pakistan as the BBC’s correspondent there, so she’ll have to wear it again. But since we don’t know why she cares either way, the irony doesn’t amount to much.


  1. Katherine Woo says

    but she doesn’t ask why it should be an obligation for women alone.

    As far as I can tell, the average 4th feminist does not ask this either. Susan Okin started a real debate in the late 1990’s, but post-9/11 political re-organization and her passing away left it moribund. Anyway let’s save a lot of time after the last hijab thread I remember, with a simply multiple-choice response.

    Female-only Islamic head coverings are not inherently misogynistic sexual double-standards because:
    A) The Iraq War/George Bush.
    B) You might superficially agree with a conservative or rightwing Christian for completely different reasons.
    C) Something Richard Dawkins said on Twitter.
    D) Your political party really needs Muslim votes.
    E) All of the above.

  2. quixote says

    (Oh, fark. Don’t tell me we’re up to 4th gen feminists by now. Wake me up when we get to plain old revolution-now! feminists.)

    Auntie Beeb’s articles about hijab-wearing all have that antiseptic, context-free, “it’s just a deeply meaningful fashion accessory” feel to them.

  3. Folie Deuce says

    I was married to a woman who decided to wear the hijab in her 30s. No one forced her. To the contrary her husband (me), father and brothers were all horrified. Still, there was pressure from other sources even though we were living in London at the time. She started paying attention to Islamic sources and various writers and satellite TV shows and concluded it was the right thing to do. Years later (while living in the Middle East) she decided to take it off. The pendulum had swung in the opposite direction and she was fed up with the hypocrisy and the hassle (it takes longer to get dressed and is a burden no matter what any woman who wears it tells you).

    There is a heavy social price associated with removing the Hijab. Friends (some of whom did not wear the hijab themselves) turned on her (“you used to be the best example”). Children who use to adore her and call her “auntie” refused to talk to her. Ultimately, she had to move to a new city to start over again. Anyone who says the hijab is a matter of choice is mistaken. Technically, there is a choice (for some women at least) but it is not a fair choice. The deck is heavily stacked against a woman who chooses not to wear the hijab and the women who are fortunate to live in families or societies where they have a genuine choice are a small minority. Lots of women who wear the hijab will tell you otherwise. They are lying. First to themselves and then to you.

  4. says

    and I wasn’t forced to do it – despite several years of pressure from my mother.

    But deep down it was becoming ingrained in me that wearing the headscarf was the right thing to do.

    Yeah…I look at those two sections and I see more “force” than she’s willing to admit. People need to do a better job of recognizing peer pressure as a form of force. (Forces need not be clearly visible to exist.)

  5. says

    I must have opened this last night and not commented until this morning. As a result, I did not see comment #3. That comment falls right in to my point that “People need to do a better job of recognizing peer pressure as a form of force.”

    Note that Folie first says, “No one forced her. ” But then later says, “There was pressure from other sources.” That’s force. Pressure doesn’t happen without forces working to either create or maintain the pressure. So that first statement is incorrect.

    Folie also said, “There is a heavy social price.” That, too, is all part of being forced to do something.

  6. says

    Well I’d call it coercion rather than force. There is a real distinction between pressure and force – but I agree with the underlying point that that doesn’t mean pressure is benign or gentle. In many ways pressure is actually worse than force, because it’s less obvious than force, because it evokes guilt and similar feelings, because it wears away resistance over time, just as it did with Khalil.

  7. says

    It might be weird because of editing. But also, I think a lot of people who abandon something because maybe they disagree with it, or don’t like it, or whatever, do so on non-rational grounds, or at least without articulating their thoughts at all. As an article, it is kind of odd, as a personal experience, probably not.

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