Posts Tagged ‘hijab’

Can’t believe I forgot this one.

The other night, John suggested going out to the movies to see a good, old-fashioned Egyptian film.

Perhaps not old-fashioned.

We had heard quite a bit in the past few months about Ahasees (“Feelings”) and the controversy that its caused post-release. Ahmed declared that when he went to see it on the Eid al-Adha break that it was like watching a pornography in the middle of a crowded theater.

From what I gathered, apparently the main heroine had an affair with a man seven years prior and, after marrying and having two children, feels shame but also longing for her old lover, and is unable to resolve her guilt. This is exacerbated by her other friends relationships, who also seem to be cheating or have cheating husbands in some form or another. For subject matter and several scenes, it was stamped “Adults Only” by the censors.

Good lord; this was probably the worst film I’ve ever seen.

Meedan’s followed the controversy now for some months, and (expectedly) there have been denunciations of all sorts; the movie breaks Egyptian cultural taboos by depicting adultery or extramarital sex in a sympathetic light, that it talks about women’s sexuality in ways not previously discussed, even that it portrays Egypt and Egyptian morality in a negative light.

I’m left at a frustrated impasse. While I like things that generally do all of those things — and especially when they cause controversy — I’m irritated at the form and the presentation.

From the get-go you realize it’s going to be bad. It’s like an hour-and-a-half film school project, in which the director was required to use certain techniques, the most heinous of which:

1. Triple-takes, Dr. No, style. Opening scene is a woman in a bikini coming out of the water, but shot in black-and-white with colorized bits (her swimsuit) like those cheesy b&w photos of the kids with the red roses. Only it fades into a repetition of the same scene. God, it was awful.

2. Long, extended takes of the couple making out. Like, waaaay too long. Uncomfortable long.

3. Long, extended takes of the couple making out, but from the perspective of the ground they’re making out on. I think what they did was have the actors lie on top of a piece of plate glass, make out, and then shoot from under them. Ick.

4. The piece de resistance: a whole dialogue scene with a revolving camera — The Bodyguard-style. You know that scene where Whitney Houston is kissing Kevin Costner, and the camera spins around them? Imagine that for five minutes. I wanted to vomit.

This also says nothing of the reception of the audience, which was actually exclusively male, and nonstop with cries of “Ya ragl!” (“Oh, man!”) and similar exclamations. Oooo, sex! It’s so naughty. It would be one thing if sex were a taboo topic and taken seriously, but it was like watching the movie with eleven-year olds: ridiculous, unpleasant, and an exercise in human stupidity.

Clerics will point to the immodest dress of women as causing earthquakes, and how the West is decadent in its standards regarding women. Usually the argument for the headscarf goes one of two ways: it’s a command from God OR that a woman’s beauty is precious and should not be seen by all — the metaphor is usually that “she is like a pearl and must be guarded.”

Why then, is there rampant sexual harassment throughout Egypt?

I’m not saying that there isn’t sexual harassment in the West. There is. Quite a lot, actually. But the idea of a woman being groped on the street….and the man not arrested…man. There might be something to the whole “protection” thing that people argue, but I think for the wrong reasons. Here, it is almost more necessary; without it, you’ll get hassled more. Perhaps they’re mistaking the result for the cause. After all, women in the West aren’t hassled for exposing their upper arms and legs, but here they are. Perhaps they are forgetting the standard and assume that it’s the same elsewhere.

John’s mentioned one of his professors has looked into certain aspects of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) about the hijab and if it were permissible to remove it in countries where it isn’t required for a woman’s modesty. Isn’t modesty something culturally local, I wonder?

Something to think about a little more, I suppose.

The consoling part of the night was going across the street to the side room of the Assteria bar, which, unbeknown to us prior to that night, served alcohol. The salon looked a bit like a Soviet bus station, and the waiters were  mysteriously nonpresent most moments, but the company was good and the beer cold.

Sigh. Way too much sexual frustration pent up in this country sometimes.

I don’t think I’ll be seeing the other movie that’s been causing just as much controversy (Rasa’il al-Ba7r, “Letters from the Sea”) any time soon.


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By now, the whole internet is abuzz with the recent controversies surrounding the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University, Muhammed Tantawi, who has hinted at the rather surprising stance of “banning’ the niqab (the full-face veil) in public institutions. Read Bikya Masr on the subject here.

My father found out about this one before I did; he called me up a few days ago to say, “Hey, Egypt’s banning the burka.

In disbelief I said, “Ridiculous. I just passed five women on the street with them on.”

Clarification for the folks back home: the niqab covers not only the hair and neck and shoulders, but the face as well– typically, they’re black. The ninja-like appearance has led Kenyans to call niqabis “ninjas.” No joke.

Little did I know. Tantawi, known for his rather liberal attitude, reportedly gave a niqabi a metaphorical lashing when she repeatedly refused to remove the veil; he kept insisting (to his right) that he knew “more than the people that gave birth to her,” and that the niqab was NOT a part of Islam. When she finally took it off, Tantawi is reported to have said, “And you look like this? What would you have done if you were even a little bit pretty?” (In theory, the niqab guards men against the temptation of a beautiful woman’s face — basically, Tantawi was shutting her self-image down)

Naturally, “the West” is jumping on top of this; I recall one article on the subject of feminism in the Middle East starting out: “The Oriental Woman is fascinating. Is she veiled? Is she not veiled? Is she oppressed? Is she liberated?” And what with Sarkozy’s remarks about how the niqab is a symbol of the oppression of a historically downtrodden “oriental woman,” and with British bank robbers donning the gear — both as an incitement of hate and a concealment of identity — it’s not surprising that something like that makes people nervous.

Yesterday, I round-tabled the issue on a group of fifteen girls and (sadly) one guy. All of them Muslim, all of the girls hijabis (wearers of the hijab, which covers the hair). In addition to making me very proud — they fought and struggled their way through English over the past few weeks and yesterday, they made indications of hitting proficiency in their expression of ideas — there was almost universal disapproval of Tantawi’s behavior. The  “liberated” woman is capable and more than able to make her own decisions; that she can cover up or uncover herself as she pleases.

I’m going to pass you along at this point to The Economist from a few weeks ago; Charlemagne had a good column related to the Antwerp headscarf ban controversy. The section I was most shocked by:

By 2008, discussion was how to wear the scarf. Not whether. In 2007-8 there were 15 girls who came with long robes, gloves, and only their faces showing. Scarves became longer and longer. I had a lot of confrontations with those girls, I said to them: “you’re spoiling the educational project.” I said to them: “you’re stigmatising yourselves. You’re breaking with society by wearing those clothes.”

They always said, “you’re stigmatising us”. In 2007 and 2008 I banned gloves, very long robes. Even that was hard for the girls. We saw girls starting to wear veils who had not before, and asked them why. They said they did not feel very comfortable without a scarf, I must be accepted. We had girls who wore scarves at school, but teachers saw them outside the school without scarves.

There was a sense that girls wearing veils were showing they were more pious. My view was each girl had the right to wear a scarf, to preserve equality. The last two years, there was a sense of a heavy, oppressive atmosphere over the schoolyard.

Karin Heremins, the headmistress of the last school in Antwerp to ban the headscarf, noted that the introduction of extremely visible, extremely conservative elements created an “oppressive atmosphere” over the schoolyard; to my mind, comparable to having visible gang members — students are aware of their presence because it’s visible.

Now, before I get eaten alive by that comparison, think about this: we’re talking minors. Kids. Kids are not nearly as mature as adults. Women can wear what they like, in my mind. However, it’s a kind of a reverse-Catholic schoolgirl-skirt: nice girls at school wear short skirts because everyone else does —  because they don’t feel “in” or “cool” if they don’t. The ones with long skirts are stigmatized as square. In comparison, in Antwerp’s case, the same kind of clique-fashion mentality has hijacked the headscarf. The headscarf is a beautiful piece of clothing and represents something beautiful (the desire to conceal, the desire to withhold something for only the most intimate in a woman’s life), and reducing it to an on-again, off-again item destroys it.

Interestingly, the girls in my class all had identical stories about the first time they put on the hijab; their parents sat them down and said, “You can do this, you have a right to, but you also have a right not to. And if you put this on, you cannot take it off.” The argument was that people would talk.

Hind, who’s very, very, very vocal in class, was at pains to stress that there is no compulsion in Islam; that no one can make you do anything in Islam (except pray, which parents are permitted to spank their kids over). They can only “advise” you.

Can a fourteen year-old girl contemplating something all her friends are doing really make that kind of decision? Imagine telling her to get a tattoo; there’s a reason why you can’t until you’re eighteen.

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