The eyes of the entire world are glued to the scenes emanating from Iran. I try to keep some distance from closely watching what seems to be an impending revolution. It is as if the act of following the unfolding events in the country will jinx it. Or, as my mother once expressed: “when you and your sisters were growing up, I used to cover my eyes when one of you did something exceptional. I didn’t want to give you the evil eye.”
I stayed silent because of my Middle Eastern upbringing and belief that you could ruin a beautiful thing by admiring it. But I can’t anymore.
Last week an Egyptian Muslim scholar announced that he refuses to impose the hijab on his young daughter, though he doesn’t mention her age. He further explained that he wants her to enjoy her childhood unfettered by any chains that could stop her from doing so during this time in her life. He added that when she wears the hijab, it would be because she wanted to wear it. It will be because of her conviction, not his imposition.
The pronouncement was filled with common sense, so much so, that I initially ignored it. Of course, its expectations shouldn’t burden a child with long clothes that could impair her activities. I used to harbor hatred towards any parent whose young girl was wearing the veil. I felt like the child was being cheated out of her carefree youth. It wasn’t until a professor once reasoned that maybe the girl wanted to cover her hair like her mother that I gave a reluctant “maybe.” Yet the reactions to the sheikh’s words reverted me to my old animosity.
Hundreds of people started swearing at the sheikh on social media for his words. They claimed that his words could lead people astray. That he has abandoned the straight path mandated by Islam. Some even ventured to question his manhood because of his statement. The “moderates” tried to reason with the sheikh that if a girl isn’t accustomed to covering her hair, she grows up refusing to cover up. That hijab, they claim, is like other religious rites, something to be practised during childhood so that it can be normalized during adulthood. It, for me, is the most problematic argument of them all.
To indoctrinate young girls, who exhibit no physical signs of femininity yet, that they must cover their hair from a young age, is to disengage the concept of choice from their vocabulary. Wearing the hijab when young is wrongfully perceived as protection by some but is in fact an endangerment to all. The habituation and normalization of the need to cover up her entire body at a young age led to the early sexualization of the girl.
She will view herself as merely a sexual object to be concealed from the prying eyes of others. This girl will never be able to see herself as a person and an equal to her peers, but rather as a sexual object fearing the desire of others. The message drilled into her young mind is that a woman’s worth is only measured through her belongingness to the worthy man who will remove the garbs and discover her concealed potential femininity.
In response to the current situation in Iran, a video of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser was posted. In the footage, Nasser recounts a discussion with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood regarding the suggestion of imposing the hijab on Egyptian women by law. Nasser ridiculed the proposal, stating that if the leader of MB can’t compel his daughter to wear the hijab, how did he expect Nasser to drive all Egyptian women to wear it?
The thing is it isn’t about the hijab. The women burning their hijabs and chopping their hair off in Iran publicly aren’t protesting the hijab explicitly. The hijab should ultimately be a piece of clothing that isn’t endowed with political power. A woman who chooses to wear the hijab should be akin to a woman who decides to wear long sleeves or short sleeves. But this isn’t the case. Whether in Iran or Egypt, the fight isn’t about an item of clothing. It is about the consistent effort of religious fascists to erase femininity exemplified in a woman’s body from the public realm. The fight is about domesticating and sometimes squashing the female spirit.
Nevertheless, as we can witness on the streets of Iran, femininity will always prevail even if it endured captivity for a long time. Femininity will not be stifled or silenced.