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Veil off - one woman's 'life-changing' decision

Veil off - one woman's 'life-changing' decision

Author: IANS
Publication: Yahoo News
Date: February 1, 2007
URL: http://in.news.yahoo.com/070201/43/6bojd.html

Egyptian ex-fashion model Naira El-Sheikh wore 'hijab', the Islamic headscarf, for more than five years. Her friends considered her 'an icon' for choosing 'piety' over anything else.

Two weeks ago, Naira decided to take it off - the scarf that has been covering her hair from peering eyes and which completed the traditional conservative dress that Muslims generally wear in the Islamic world.

'When I made this decision there were extreme reactions from the people I know,' said Naira. 'Some people called it an overdue correction of a mistake. 'Welcome back!' they said. And others would not want to talk to me. I haven't welcomed any of these reactions.'

According to 25-year-old Naira, women from her age have been put under great pressure because of how the Egyptian society perceives Hijab and in turn veiled woman.

A veiled woman is not allowed the same 'liberties' that an unveiled woman is, and is usually held to different standards.

'I do believe Hijab is not just a dress code, it's a statement, a behaviour and an attitude that you embrace,' said Naira. Nevertheless, she said that the society 'has come to expect so much from a veiled women'.

Upon donning the veil, the woman has to adopt certain conformist behaviour that include maintaining a low-profile in public and abstaining from 'casual relationships' with the opposite sex.

Although the Koran does not outline this strict understanding of the veil, Naira explained that she tried to strictly abide by this socially-backed 'behavioural code' when she first took the veil on.

'I drastically changed my lifestyle but still it did not fit the expectations of some hardliners from both extremes - the so-called liberals and the so-called conservatives,' she observed.

Naira wore the headscarf, but juggled baggie pants, long skirts and long-sleeved shirts to preserve her individual style. Islamic scholars still disagree about the extent of how a Muslim woman should 'cover up'.

The Muslims' holiest book clearly states that a woman should cover her cleavage and dress modestly - but any other restrictions on dress remain debatable.

So the form of Hijab as many know it - one that includes headscarves and long robes - has been only common in Egypt and other neighbouring countries for the past few decades, when a wave of 'piety' started to engulf some countries in the Middle East.

In the early 1990s particularly, Egypt transformed into a more conservative state where an estimated 70 percent of Muslim women took on the Hijab.

Some women even started covering their hair with scarves while preserving their dress style that included wearing tight pants and body-hugging tops.

TV preacher Amr Khaled was one cleric who is considered to have introduced this neo-Islamic conservative trend.

Khaled, who abandoned the traditional scholarly robe for a suit and a tie, seemed to use a different tone of preaching that quickly captivated many of Egypt's younger people, many who usually left the mosque with teary eyes and a strong resolve to get closer to God.

Prayer, fasting and reading Koran became more common and Hijab for the girls was no exception.

Although scholars are divided about whether the scarf and the traditional Islamic gown is 'an obligation', Khaled and several preachers who gradually rose to popularity, vehemently advocate it.

The rise of 'conservatism' seemed to go out of proportion, as certain apparel like the opaque face-veils and head-to-toe cloaks began to spread. This was also coupled by the 'inactivity' of some women who chose to confine themselves at home after donning the veil.

Many liberals feared that this trend might introduce to Egypt elements of 'backwardness' that are imported from Arab countries which promote a more rigid form of Islamic practice.

In a newspaper column, Islamic intellectual Mohammad Emara wrote against what he called 'Islamic transgressors' who use Hijab as a 'tool' to oppress Muslim women.

Emara said these people, who are engaged in a power struggle with women, force upon them a stringent lifestyle that is not necessarily compatible with what Islam preaches, and which is 'more political' than it is religious.

Caught in the row between the contemptuous liberals and the uncompromising hardliners, some young women like Naira continue to struggle for 'a balance' between Islamic practice and living their life to the fullest 'without sin'.

Even with a veil on, Naira - a single mother - remained committed to a full-time day job as a business development manager, among other activities.

For her, the decision to take it on or to abandon it is both personal and religious - one that cannot be decided by preachers and their loyalists in the mosques.


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