I wore the hijab — a form of dress that comprises a head scarf and usually also clothing that covers the whole body except for the face and hands — for nine years. Put more honestly: I wore the hijab for nine years and spent eight of them trying to take it off.
I chose to wear the hijab at age 16, soon after my family moved from Britain to Saudi Arabia. I wanted to save my sanity, and so I struck a deal with God: I’d cover up, as I was taught a good Muslim girl should, if God would save me from a breakdown that I was sure would come in that country where women were considered the walking embodiment of sin. I wanted to hide — from eyes and hands that made going out anywhere, especially unaccompanied, hellish.
Almost immediately, I missed the wind in my hair. When I caught my reflection in a window, I did not recognize myself. I wanted to reconcile the internal and external me, but I was to discover that choosing to wear the hijab is much easier than choosing to take it off.
I finally summoned the courage to stop wearing it in 1993, when I was 25 and had moved back to my birthplace, Egypt. For years, despite my inner doubts, I represented to others my choice to veil as a feminist one. If a woman could choose to wear a miniskirt, surely I could choose to cover my hair? I wanted people to address my mind and to not objectify me, I would say. Ultimately, I could not sustain that line of thinking because, as a feminist, I demanded that people address my mind and not objectify me, regardless of how I dressed.
What helped me part ways with the hijab was a conversation my mother had with a family acquaintance. Asking after my brother and me, the man wondered if I was married. When my mother said I wasn’t, he replied: “Don’t worry. She wears a head scarf — she’ll find a husband.”
Then I understood: I wasn’t the hijab poster girl I thought I was. I was just a hijab.
After I unveiled, I remained overwhelmed with guilt. For years, I would not tell anyone that I’d once worn a head scarf.
To write about the hijab is to step into a minefield. Even among those who share my cultural and faith background, opinions veer from those who despise it as a symbol of backwardness to those for whom religion begins and ends with that piece of cloth. And while a majority of women in Egypt today are veiled, that hasn’t always been the case: The pendulum swings.
When I was a child in Egypt, none of my aunts wore head scarves. Photographs from family weddings in the 1970s show aunts with bare heads and dresses, at times standing next to belly dancers who sparkled in beaded bikinis and gauzy chiffon barely covering their legs. In today’s weddings, most of my aunts and their daughters are covered up, and there are no belly dancers.
I had one aunt, four years older than I, who adopted the hijab at age 17, in 1980. When we would go out walking, strangers would look aghast and spit insults: “What the hell are you doing?” “What is that tent you’re wearing?” Decades later, in Cairo, such public abuse is hurled at women like me who don’t veil.
There are many explanations for why women veil themselves. Some do it out of piety, believing that the Quran mandates it for modesty’s sake. Others do so because veiling visibly proclaims their Muslim identity. For yet others, the veil is a way to avoid unwanted attention and gain some freedom from harassment in public space that has become increasingly male-dominated.
The rise of Islamism, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has increased the prevalence of veiling. Often, the Islamists’ social control has been boosted by regimes that were nominally secular but promoted the same conservative values to burnish their religious credentials.
In 2005, I went to interview Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader at the time, in Cairo. I expected to be asked to cover up; whenever I’d interviewed Brotherhood leaders before, I’d been handed a scarf to wear. This time, though I was dressed in a T-shirt and trousers, the aide who ushered me in did not give me a head scarf; I was pleasantly surprised.
I asked Mr. Akef if the Brotherhood, should it ever govern Egypt, would change the Constitution to curb women’s rights — for instance, by making the veil mandatory. He insisted that the Brotherhood believed in pluralism and inclusion. Then the dialogue took a strange turn.
“And as proof,” he said, “you are here interviewing me, and you are naked.”
“I am not naked.”
“Your hair is naked, your arms are naked; according to God’s law, you are naked.”
“The verses in the Quran regarding women’s dress have been interpreted differently,” I said.
“Don’t listen to those who try to say the hijab is not mandatory. There are no different interpretations. There is just one interpretation and, according to that interpretation, you are naked.”
So much for pluralism. This is our version of the sort of “purity culture” that is promoted everywhere by the religious right, with its obsession with women’s bodies, its notion of modesty that unfairly burdens girls and women and its glorification of female virginity.
But the political revolutions that began in 2010 in the Middle East and North Africa have also inspired us to challenge social mores long taken for granted. Because I have finally been open about the fact that I once wore the hijab, I have heard from more and more women who want to unveil. “How did you take it off?” they ask. “How did you handle family pressure?”
For some who are rejecting the hijab, it’s their first public appearance without a head scarf in five or 10 years — in one case, 30. Many directly link their unveiling with the revolution and their personal understanding of freedom. What happens in Egypt influences the rest of the region; I see the pendulum swinging the other way again.
My head scarf came off 22 years ago, but I have never stopped wrestling with what veiling means for Muslim women. Authenticity is about more than a layer of cloth on one’s head. To be acknowledged as more than our head scarves is the right of every Muslim girl and woman.
Mona Eltahawy is the author of the forthcoming book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.