Mona Eltahawy isn’t the only amazing feminist to come out of her family. I work (and am friends with :) ) Nora Eltahawy, her sister. I wanted to write about Nora for a second, because, when I moved to Cairo I found a feminist kindred spirit in her and it reminded me (because i am ignorant or forgetful or naive, or something) that there are tons of great feminists in the Middle East, and in Egypt specifically.
When I first met Nora it was hard not to notice her veil. But what surprised me was that she is veiled and her sister, Mona, is not. Mona, though, was veiled for nine years. Nora lived, for 17 years, in Saudi Arabia, and I know (from her) that it turned her into a staunch, proud feminist (irony?). She recently wrote a post on Facebook (I know, I know, the world is slowly being taken over by Mark Zuckerberg and his cronies) about the veil, and I feel like I have to post it. Because it’s great. And, for all the talk of “behind the veil,” “approaching the veil,” etc. etc, it’s refreshing to hear Nora talk about her own veiling.
Her note, titled “Veiled and Pissed Off” prompted a flood of comments, most in strong support of her thoughts and feelings, but there was one special Facebooker whose comments I’ll paraphrase with later:
How many of you can claim the following statement is true:
Today I was stopped from filling out a survey on beauty because I am veiled.
Allow me to explain: upon walking into HUSS lab and finding Sherin filling out what looked like a fun student-written survey that tests different opinions of beauty, I decided to ask to fill one out myself. That was when I was informed by the rather stuttery ‘researcher’ that I couldn’t – because I am veiled. The official excuse was that her professor thought including veiled girls’ opinions would make the data “too broad”. Any veiled girl who has ever faced discrimination knows that the ‘official’ and ‘real’ excuses have nothing to do with each other.
Because I was powerless to do anything in the situation (but cry…but that’s a story for another note), I had to write this. The following is dedicated to all the people of my own culture, religion, and university who will never understand the type of life I lead. I hope someone puts you all in your place one day. And I hope that someone is a veiled woman:
- I will not self implode if I hear you talk about sex. My decision to cover my hair did not and does not signify the death of my sexuality. Just because I choose to not have sex does not mean I can’t talk/think/obsess/intellectualize about it. So fucking get over yourselves.
- That brings me to another thing: Yes. I cuss. If you’re looking for saints, Catholic iconography is more useful to you than my life.
- Look up the word ‘subjective’ in the dictionary. Add it to ‘beauty’ and you will realize that people are SUPPOSED to have different opinions about what they find beautiful. What is on my head does not make my opinion any less valid than yours. I still look at hair dye in the supermarket. I freak out when I forget my eyeliner at home and can’t reapply it at uni. And not only do I know just as many brandnames as you – I can spell them better.
- It’s strange that there seems to be more contention surrounding the link between smoking and cancer than there seems to be surrounding the link between headcovers and intelligence. My GPA, language skills, and ability to be a good student/employee do not disappear along with my hair.
- STOP FREAKING WRITING BOOKS THAT HAVE ‘Going Behind the Veil’ IN THEIR TITLE. Pseudo-feminists, let me save you a lot of time and a whole lot of bad writing: you want to know what’s behind the veil? Hair. Now can we move on?
And most important of all points:
- You make my life a living hell everyday. More than the neo-fascist regimes of the West that force unveiling on women, that decry my religion in popular culture, and that choose people of my belief for ‘random’ security checks in airports. Anne Coulter can claim ignorance; all you can claim is stupidity and sunglasses big enough to swallow your face.
I will end this with a fantastic poem by a woman who is much more eloquent on this subject that I can ever be – Mohja Kahf (a Syrian American poet, scholar, and professor). With the exception of the defect/American part of this poem, it is like having my thoughts written down by another person.
Hijab Scene #7
No, I’m not bald under the scarf
No, I’m not from that country
where women can’t drive cars
No, I would not like to defect
I’m already American
But thank you for offering
What else do you need to know
relevant to my buying insurance,
opening a bank account,
reserving a seat on a flight?
Yes, I speak English
Yes, I carry explosives
They’re called words
And if you don’t get up
Off your assumptions,
They’re going to blow you away
(From: Emails to Schehrezad by Mohja Kahf)
So, Nora’s writing out of anger and frustration. That’s pretty apparent, but props, mad props, to her for getting out her frustrations. I’m told, by her, as the neanderthal that posted this was subsequently blocked, that a one Muhammad from Qatar wrote to her (she doesn’t know him, mind you) saying that “Egyptian men made an agreement not to marry women like you and you will have to turn to homo.” That’s intelligent. He also commented that women like Nora are a “danger to society.” Some other ridiculous things were said, but I think you all get the point.
Veiling is a really tricky issue. Because for a lot of Muslim women it’s a choice. I’m Muslim and I have never veiled. And I probably never will. My mother never veiled either (note: this does not mean that we don’t veil inside the mosque, that I do). If I don’t want to don the hijab but Nora does, that is entirely my decision and hers, respectively. In some countries (read: Iran, Saudi Arabia) the Morality Police like to jump on their high horses and, yes, women are forced to veil. If it’s not a choice, then that’s problematic. However, I always find talking about this a bit hypocritical. Maybe I’m just not comfortable with it yet. Sometimes I feel like the patriarchal societies that dominate Islamic culture and tradition condition women to believe that they should veil, or they should practice FGM, or they should allow their husbands to beat them because…after all…they are just women. Bah. See? A tricky line to walk.
Something especially frustrating was listening to an Arab woman, who came to a lecture last week by Mona on “Violence Against Women: Media and Culture in Egypt.” She commented saying, essentially, “how can we change anything and ask for equality when our husbands are the ones that should be taking care of us, and they should be supporting us?” Ugh. In order to make change within the context of the Islamic culture, America can’t just run into Afghanistan and start yelling at women to take off their burqa. Hey! Look! The Taliban are gone, start ripping that burqa off. No.
So…at the end of this post, I have no definite answers. The veil is a tricky, tricky subject, which I’m sure I’ll continue to write about because it confuses me, irks me, challenges me…keeps me trying to figure out my own Islam and trying to figure out the Islam of the girl sitting next to me wearing a niqab.
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