Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

RELIGION: Headscarves Dispute Travels to Egypt

Adam Morrow

CAIRO, Dec 1 2006 (IPS) - Heated disputes have arisen in Egypt over the suggestion by culture minister Farouk Hosni last week that the rising number of Egyptian women wearing the Islamic headscarf is a sign of social “regression”.

Hosni was quoted by independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm as saying that the Islamic headscarf, the hijab, represented “backward thinking”. The minister went on to reminisce about times when women “went to universities and work places without the headscarf.”

Hosni’s comments provoked outrage, particularly among conservative Muslim circles. “In a majority Muslim country like Egypt, the minister’s statements were unusually strong,” Walid Kazziha, chairman of the political science department at the American University in Cairo told IPS.

In parliament, representatives from both the opposition and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) scrambled to condemn Hosni’s comments. MPs from the Muslim Brotherhood, which holds roughly a fifth of the seats in the People’s Assembly, demanded the minister’s immediate resignation.

Not to be outdone by their Islamist rivals, officials from the NDP – of which Hosni is a member – were no less quick to distance themselves from the minister’s statements. Fifty NDP parliamentarians joined Muslim Brotherhood MPs in calling for a vote of no confidence against the minister.

Reactions on the street have been no less vigorous.

Hundreds of students from Al-Azhar University – one of Sunni Islam’s oldest and most venerable institutions – protested in the Nasr city district of the capital, loudly demanding Hosni’s resignation. An estimated 1,500 college students in the southern city of Assiut, the vast majority of them wearing headscarves, also held protests against Hosni.

The minister, now said to be afraid to step out of his house, has said that the comments “represented no more than a personal opinion.” His comments, he said, “had nothing whatsoever to do with religion,” and this matter was “one for religious scholars” to decide. Most Muslim clerics believe that the wearing of the hijab is obligatory for all Muslim women, but some religious scholars dispute that view.

Nevertheless, Hosni, at the behest of MPs of all stripes, was made to appear before two parliamentary committees responsible for issues of religion and culture, and asked to “clarify” his position.

One of the meetings was held at the NDP’s Cairo headquarters Nov. 27. More than 100 party officials turned up for the meeting. The next day, the local press reported that NDP members had pointed to the angry reaction provoked by Hosni, and urged the minister to do his utmost to bring his position in line with public opinion.

According to Al-Masri Al-Youm, the meeting concluded with a promise from the culture minister to “hold a press conference or deliver an official statement” to “further clarify” his position. MPs were also promised a chance to question Hosni in parliament.

Immediately after the gathering, an NDP member told reporters that the meeting had been “an expression of party unity.” He added that the NDP policy “guarantees freedom of expression and opinion as basic values of liberty and democracy.”

In an indication of the sensitivity of the issue, however, government officials continue to fervently distance themselves from the minister’s contentious remarks.

“The wearing of the hijab is a cultural, not a political, issue. Politicians have no right to pass judgment on people’s dress codes,” NDP spokesman Ali El-Din Helal told IPS. “It is the right of every Egyptian woman to dress as she pleases within the traditional bounds of decency.”

The dispute has certainly left many Egyptians, particularly those who wear the headscarf, feeling angry and insulted. “The culture minister shouldn’t talk on religious issues. He’s the one who’s backward,” said Naglaa Badr, a 33-year-old Cairo housewife who regularly wears the hijab. “It’s not a matter of ‘personal opinion’. The headscarf is essential to Islam – it’s written in the Koran.”

But while the minister’s comments may have appeared out of step with popular thinking, some observers say Hosni was expressing the view of a sizable minority in Egypt. “While saying such things publicly can get one into trouble, the culture minister is hardly alone in his opinion,” said Kazziha. “The headscarf issue remains the subject of ongoing discourse.”

According to local human rights experts, however, Hosni’s statements only served to make an already sensitive topic even more controversial.

“The hijab issue has become so politicised that it has become almost impossible to discuss it rationally,” Hossam Bahgat, programme director at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told IPS. “Unfortunately, the culture minister’s statements have made the situation even worse, making dialogue all the more difficult.”

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