How Traditional is the Hijab & Niqab in Middle East


Here is my problem when I see titles/images like this; they seem to suggest that the Hijab & Niqab are part-and-parcel of the entire Middle Eastern Muslim society tradition. Well I can tell you this is not strictly true. As someone raised in the Middle East (Egypt to be specific) and I am pretty much sure same applies to other North African states as well as Syria & Lebanon these women garments have never been prominent in the region-for Egypt this changed in the the early 1990’s-I’ve seen it come about with alarming speed to my closest inner circles. There are reasons for this which mainly revolve around the in-flow of Wahabi/conservative ideology through Saudi trained muslim scholars/clerics that flooded the country, though a more detailed analysis is needed to cover this trend properly. That said however this does NOT in any way suggest any disrespect for women who choose to wear these garments-or any other-it only disputes the suggestion that these have alway been part of the traditional women dress code in this region and merely encourages people to look at the history of how things where and how they ended up and try to connect the dots. So how did this come about, well here is my own theory;

In my mind I believe a more controlled/conservative Islam has been allowed a back door into society by authoritarian regimes to divert attention from issues related to democratic governance and controlling corruption-it’s a convenient side show that people can dwell on as means of constraining them from issues of governance as well as a more passive/compliant version of Islam compared to the more extremist ideology that challenges authority. But with a every side show there is another show on the other side-in this case there are a few but a couple worth mentioning are;

a) this approach contributed to diluting any sense of identity as a secular/progressive society or at the very least created confused sense of identity by trying to connect a set of old secular values/traditions with newly acquired conservative/religious norms which is a bit of a challenge-the new box doesn’t fit the original mould of society.

b) continued political oppression and suppressing any form of political alternatives/decent only created an environment that incubates terrorism & extremist ideology-and thanks to western support to short sighted solutions we continue to back these regimes which in a sense is like fighting fire with fuel rather than water-not to ignore the fact that there are certainly powerful brokers who have substantial interest/capital in maintaining such policy.

So here are some content (articles/video clips) that try to make my point-though there is plenty more documented material online and elsewhere for those interested in pursuing this further.


Women cheering Nasser for his recognition of women’s votes (1960’s)


Here is a link to an article that provides photographic timeline of Cairo University students that demonstrates the gradual progression in this change in dress style to a more conservative one-the article is also quite interesting to read;

How the Veil Conquered Cairo University

Former Egyptian President Nasser talking about his conversations with Moslem Brotherhood leader who demanded that he as President needs to  require women to wear a scarf in public. Note that English subtitles for some strange reason are in yellow and appear at the top of the clip;

Colour footage from Egypt in the 1960s including clips from Cairo University;

Former Egyptian King Farouk Opens Cairo Fair (1949)

The Cosmopolitan/Secular face of the Middle East

Finally, though not strictly related to the issue of head scarf, the following video’s demonstrate that Egypt as well as many other countries in the Middle East have been mostly secular/cosmopolitan states where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together in perfect harmony. In addition, for Egypt specifically there have been large foreign communities living permanently in Egypt-mainly Greeks & Armenians as well as from other countries which created a vibrant/progressive outward looking society-though certainly the economic benefits did not flow equitably to the low & working class. This cosmopolitan nature of the society slowly began to dissipate once the Middle East conflict began to affect society in the early 1950’s where Jews began to migrate for fear of prosecution and other foreigners feared backlash from a society which became increasingly nationalistic and suspicious of foreigners. This coupled with political suppression I would suspect are the real causes that gave rise to extremist groups/ideologies like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Jews of Egypt


Jews of Lebanon

The main take away from this section in my view is that isolationist/protectionist policies is one that promotes conflict/paranoid perceptions & isolationist tendencies which are detrimental to a host of shared interests in an interconnected world which already exists-we can’t really untangle it now; we can either go with the flow to make progress/reform quicker or against the flow to make that same experience far tedious and lengthy-I suspect some will choose to take the short cut and others will insist on taking the bumpy/long drive which eventually will come with a hefty price tag.

Another important take away is that there are many dimensions to the Middle East considering the historical context alone. It would be wise to rediscover the Middle East in in that context in order to make better judgements on policy moving forward.


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