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Commentary Last Updated: Jan 4th, 2007 - 01:08:31

Wanted: Open debate on veil
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Nov 30, 2006, 01:04

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Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni recently triggered a public firestorm by criticizing the veil in Al-Masri Al-Youm. �There was an age when our mothers went to university and worked without the veil. It is in that spirit that we grew up, so why this regression?� he said.

In response, 130 parliamentarians demanded the minister�s immediate resignation, including members of his own ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Some of his colleagues suggested he be tried for disparaging Islam while students around the country participated in angry demonstrations demanding that Hosni, who has retained the same ministerial portfolio for 19 years, be sacked.

Eschewing a direct apology, Hosni was driven to stress that his words reflected his personal opinion while affirming his respect for women of cover.

The Egyptian press appeared divided over the issue. Writing in Al-Ahram, Salama A. Salama had this to say:

�To waste valuable time in discussing the hijab and niqab is to admit that Muslim society is inane and emotionally disturbed. The more we discuss such matters, the less time we will have for the issues that we need to ponder.

�Would it not be better for the controversy between the Muslim Brotherhood and Culture Minister Farouk Hosni to have been about the things that matter? How about the education of our young people? How about building a modern culture that is compatible with our times?�

Publisher of the Daily Star Egypt Mirette F. Mabrouk writes: �Our constitution says that this is a secular country with freedom of choice. I should not be looked down upon for exercising my right to express my religious views by wearing a veil. Nor should I be forced to wear it.

�Those who feel that the veil should be obligatory are perfectly free to move to countries that mandate it. I hear Afghanistan is lovely at this time of year.� She does suggest, however, that public figures would be wise to keep their personal opinions private.

Last week, more than 500 prominent liberals signed a petition condemning Hosni�s critics, whom they branded as participating in a �witch-hunt." These included movie-makers Yusri Nasrallah and Youssef Chahine as well as award-winning author of the �Yacoubian Building� Ala�a Al-Aswani, who defended Hosni�s right to express his opinion. As a Westerner who has lived in Egypt for more than three years, I confess to finding the entire veil issue a complex minefield.

In last week�s column I criticized European politicians for their condemnations of the veil and their attempts to ban the niqab or burqa on the grounds that in a democracy citizens should be able to wear whatever they please within the constraints of decency.

Some of my readers, therefore, may find it odd that at the same time I agree with Ala�a Al-Aswani and others who defend Farouk Hosni�s stance in the name of free speech.

There is a fundamental difference between, say, Britain�s Jack Straw and his preference for female constituents to turn up at his office unveiled and comments made by Farouk Hosni.

For instance, Jack Straw is a minister in a government led by a self-professed religious Christian who believes he is fighting an open war against what he terms an evil ideology. This is also a government that is actively occupying Muslim lands and saber rattling against others.

Straw�s comments are also directed at a tiny minority that is already the object of discrimination and abuse and have further incited calls for a complete ban of the full veil, which would infringe human rights.

On the other hand, Farouk Hosni is a Muslim in a predominantly Muslim country and as such his opinion presumably comes uncluttered by ulterior motives. Put simply, European politicians preoccupied with the veil are either following an agenda or are driven by xenophobia while Hosni surely has a perfect right to speak out concerning the trends within his own religion inside his own country.

The fact is Islamic scholars disagree as to whether wearing the veil is a religious requirement as do adherents of the religion. Given these differences of opinion, there is no reason why the issue cannot be brought into the open and discussed and especially in secular countries where some women choose to go veiled and others don�t.

In this case, those who sought to demonize Hosni would better serve their cause by explaining why they feel the wearing of the veil is desirable or mandatory and opening up the debate. If there is no such debate, then women may feel under pressure to succumb to the growing trend without understanding the fundamental religious principles.

During my time here I have periodically asked women why they chose to don the veil unlike their mothers and grandmothers, who in some instances wore miniskirts and even bikinis.

Some told me it�s the current fashion. Two said it saved on hairdressing bills. Several implied it was a prerequisite to marriage in that they would be perceived as chaste. Others admitted they had come under peer pressure or had been influenced by parents, teachers or female bosses.

Yet others insisted it was mandated by the Qur�an but were unable to quote the relevant passage. A few said they wore it to ward off unwelcome attention from men. One said she found it strangely liberating. A women in her 50s said she adopted the veil after her son was killed in a car accident. Various Egyptian actresses have taken the veil later on in life as a way of renouncing their previous �sinful� lives. Several students I spoke with indicated that wearing the veil was a protest against Western influences.

Whatever the reason, no one should interfere with the free choice of these women, who contrary to Western stereotypes, have rarely been forced to wear the veil by their fathers or husbands. And as long as they are convinced their choice is the right one for them, there is no reason for them to feel offended or intimidated by the personal opinions of others.

When people have right on their side and the courage of their convictions why make the issue of the veil a taboo subject? Farouk Hosni has courageously opened the debate risking his own safety in the process.

Instead of calling for his head, why don�t those who disagree simply explain why they believe Hosni has got it wrong?

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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