It was interesting to notice that the three women, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 2011; the Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni human rights campaigner Tawakkul Karman, all were wearing head covers.
It seems that the highest awarding body of one of the most prestigious awards has acknowledged that a head cover does not obscure women’s intellectuality, hinders their progress or mask their contributions to humanity.
It is not an issue whether they wore their head covers for religious reasons, or because they are proud of their own home country’s heritages. It is still an expression of freedom of choice of identity that all three of them have exercised.
It is still mind boggling why a head covering is acceptable as long as it is considered part of fashion or traditions, while it is confronted with harsh opposition and criticism if it reflects people’s religious beliefs. This point does not need proof providing. A very swift and simple search online, using an expression such as Hijab or any Muslim women’s head garment such as burqua, will yield a generous amount of negative comments and articles that are mainly demonising those who wear them, connecting them either with fanaticism or with backwardness, while a hat or a wig are almost always reflected positively in articles about fashion and other benign and harmless issues.
Contrary to head garments, shoes at the other end of the body raised no controversial issues.
As early as 2005 I wrote a great deal about the hat and the shoe and their symbolic presence through poetry and in current affairs reporting. I have found out that, in most cases the head cover was the first thing people use to identify one’s political or religious affiliation, unlike the good old shoes which seem to be cross cultural and a shared interest between people of diverse backgrounds.
I was fascinated with this subject that I ended up making my photography project at the university about the relationship between one’s shoes and his/her personality. I was lucky to win the first place for my graduation project, but I found out as well that prominent politicians share their appreciation of certain types or makes of shoes with fanatics, gangsters, criminals and political opponents, while in no way they will wear the same head garments. It was quite refreshing to find the positive role of shoes, diversity wise. Everyone was an equal when it comes to dressing their feet unlike covering their heads. It is funny to think that people, who hate the guts of each other, share the same admirations to certain shoes makes.
Something that many people in the ‘West’ do not realise is that almost all the rebellious women in the Middle East, aka the feminists and activists, are the ones who started wearing the Hijab in the early years of the 1970s. Before that date, women were considered as beautiful fragile harem, who when they go out they dressed in the latest fashions copied from European magazines or brought from Europe or cover their heads for traditional reasons because they had to. Mind you, both cultures; Western and Middle Eastern were then still conservative in general.
Women of the Middle East in general were not expected to participate in political activities or make statements. The ones who started to cover their heads were the well educated women who had minds of their own and who wanted men to acknowledge their intellectuality instead on focussing on their bodies’ beauty. Many wanted to make a statement against the rising communism that was in a way a new perspective of nationalism in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, and Marxism in Palestinian cities of a majority of Christian communities, such as Nazareth, or simply to defy their family’s traditions of women not wearing head covers in wealthy circles in an attempt to copy western societies.
Wearing a show through black veil until the 1960s was an imported fashion by the wealthy who could afford to visit Europe, especially Paris and London, and copy their fashions. Wearing such veils was to reflect a sexually attractive seductive woman and had nothing to do with faith. Such veils used to show screaming red lipstick.
All the pictures of my family album shows mature ladies like my grandmother’s age and old aunties, none of them were wearing a head cover. The women who used to wear a head cover in general were the peasants, and this does not necessarily have to do with having a religious personality. It was part of their traditions. Some wear their head covers in a way that does not mind showing some hair peeping from underneath.
In my home country, Palestine, the head cover of Palestinian Muslim women and Christian women used to be worn in exactly the same way, that one can’t guess if a woman is a Christian or a Muslim, exactly in the same manner that virgin Mary, mother of the prophet Jesus used to wear her head cover according to all paintings and sculptures available in Palestinian churches. The fact that Muslim and Christian women used to look similar, was a source of a joke by a Christian friend of my father who told him once about a beautiful woman he saw passing by and that he was interested in asking for her hand in marriage, but he did not know if she was a Muslim or a Christian.
The head cover started to surface during the revolution that ended the British colonialism in Egypt. This act of expression of identity started by feminists, suffragettes and intellectual women who wanted to make a point about their identities since the westernising efforts and trends were almost imposed on them during the colonization period. Strangely enough, the head cover was a political statement twice, once when it was taken off to declare the start of revolts against the British presence in Egypt and back on when the clashes between the nationalists of the late President Gamal AbdelNasir made the life of the Islamists a living hell. But the Western world’s media perceives it as a backwardness issue without looking deeper into the story, because there is a general refusal of the idea that women in Muslim majority countries can have mind of their own. It is easier for western media to see us as oppressed women waiting for a western Superman such as Bush to bring us his liberation on tanks as he did for Afghanistan and Iraq.
As soon as Qasim Amin, the Egyptian jurist and one of the founders of the Egyptian national movement, issued his book “Women’s Liberation” in 1899, and followed that with another book “The New woman”, the Egyptian society witnessed an active dialogue about women and their political roles. Even though, Qasim Amin presented his ideas in a less profound manner than those of the renaissance intellectual, Rifa’a el-Tahtawi, still Amin’s ideas and opinions were presented in the spirit of a rebellious writer, contrary to el-Tahtawi who has chosen the subtle approach of a reformist.
When the National Party was established in Egypt under the leadership of Mustafa Kamil Pasha, in December 1907, some Egyptian women started to attend his meetings to hear his speeches. He was the first man in the Arab World to open his speeches by addressing women in the audience by saying ‘ladies and gentlemen’. This phrase was considered a Western tradition.
In 1909 Huda Sharawi, a pioneer Egyptian woman and an activist, helped in establishing ‘Mubarrat Muhammad Ali’, a women’s social service organization, and the ‘Union of Educated Egyptian Women’ in 1914, the year during which she travelled to Europe for the first time and came back to take off her Hijab during a public march in the streets of Cairo, along with Safiya Zaghloul, Saad Zaghloul’s wife. Saad was a judge and founder of the Wafd, one of Egypt’s most popular political parties.
Safiya Zaghloul herself played an important role in Egypt’s political movement mobilising Egyptian women to stage demonstrations during the 1919 revolution, and for that she was called Umm Al- Masryeen, the Mother of Egyptians. The first women’s demonstration in Egypt’s modern history took off from her house. Women marched down the streets chanting: “Long live the supporters of freedom and justice.” And from her house balconies, eloquent revolutionary speakers like Makram Ebeid, Abdel-Maguid Badr, Bishop Sergius and Mahgoub Thabet addressed the angry audiences below.
It has been acceptable to wear hats full of feathers of innocent birds, killed and extinct to provide high social class ladies with decorations for hats they might wear only once or twice in their life time, yet the Hijab has been reflected as a repulsive symbol that reminds people of terrorists and famine struck areas. But here we are. The Nobel Prize committee, which is possibly politically driven, seems to think it is the right time to highlight Hijab wearing women, and even support them and get them prepared to take over political positions that used to be occupied by old male allies. Does it matter if women were covering their heads with a hat, a hijab, or even completely bald if they do what they do with total free well?
Iqbal Tamimi is the Director of Arab Women Media Watch Centre in UKTags: Global
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This post was written by Iqbal Tamimi