The question is not whether to veil or not to veil. It’s to allow for freedom of choice and respect the consequences of our choice.
So the Salafis are wreaking havoc. The Muslim Brotherhood is claiming modest representation in the forthcoming parliament and God forbid should they put forward any presidential candidates. But Sheikh Ali Gomaa, The Grand Mufti, is calling for a secular modern state. Even within the MB, there are way too many voices: the moderates, the liberals, the fundamentalists, the Islamists.
Now the MB is angry with the Salafis for distorting the moderate image of Islam it is trying to project. The Salafis are angry with Al Azhar for depoliticizing Islam. Al Azhar is super angry with both MB and Salafis for using the current political void as an ideological battleground, and the Sufis are just upset everyone else is high-jacking their faith.
Since the March 19th referendum when over 70% of Egyptian voters tipped the balance in favor of the MB when they voted YES to constitutional amendments, Egypt seems to have split into two very distinct blocs: Islamic and Liberal.
The self-proclaimed progressive liberals refuse categorically to turn Egypt into a Muslim State in the wake of the January 25 revolution which toppled a 60 year old authoritarian regime. Despite their varying political inclinations, this group has united to face a common enemy: the Islamic Bloc.
On the other hand, the MB lost their common enemy when Mubarak’s rule was ended. Multilayered schisms immediately erupted within their ranks. But when we, the liberals realized that enemy frontlines were not really that synchronized, we panicked and our own strides faltered. It soon became apparent that the religious so called “bloc” is paper thin and has come crumbling down the minute it caught the spotlight.
As a Muslim, I find it heart-wrenching to witness deep sectarian divide among Egyptian Unless we stop fighting the MB and living through conspiracy theories, we won’t surface long enough to enjoy a few breaths of freedom before we sink back into a futile battle to crush religious factions that shape our society Muslim. When I was growing up, the Sufis were mystics we studied in history books. The Shi’as were a sect we were taught to ignore and Islam was the Quran, the Sunna and your own personal efforts to adapt both to your life.
In the wake of 9/11 western fear from Iran’s nukes and labeling Hamas and Hizbollah groups as terrorists tuned us in to a more violent version of Islam. The war in Iraq hammered sectarianism deeperinto our psyche and served as a constant reminder that religious factions within Islam don’t work well together in a political setting. As residents of the victim city of New York, this fear from an Islamic society was only heightened by virtual nightmare scenarios projected in the media.
Egyptians felt prejudiced against, in particular Muslim Egyptians who were lumped with fundamentalist groups and prejudged as a terror threat to the West. Young women increasingly donned the veil in an unprecedented stand against western prejudice and attack on our Islam. Herd mentality among young Egyptians was nurtured and both Niqab (our own Egyptian version of the infamous Burqa) and veil became our first symbolic line of defense. Slowly, the dichotomy between East and West was imported and domestic divides burgeoned. Prejudices trickled to affect relations between the veiled and the non-veiled, seen as purveyors of western culture through their dress code.
I left Egypt in 2001. This was the time when the veil was still a personal choice. The few of my friends who chose to wear it were also adopting a more conservative lifestyle to go with their outer expression. Now, I see thousands of university students wearing skinny low rise pants and figure hugging tops I would never dare to wear. On their heads, they carry elaborate scarf bows and ties that dazzle the eye or cause headache, depending on your visual tolerance.This, I’m told, is today’s veil, an exaggerated expression of defiance and in some instances coercion, as many are forced to veil to protect their image and reputation.
I see relatives who were once close friends, now turned Salafis and Wahabis (and I still can’t tellthe difference) in short dress, untamed beards but worst of all, they stopped communicating with me.According to their interpretation of Islam, they don’t mingle with the opposite sex.
As the decade came to an end, so did our respectful coexistence. Religious rhetoric became louder and more imposing. The MB played martyrs to a suffocating regime and won millions of supporters through organized social work, which the government systematically failed to provide.
On January 25th and the days of revolution that followed, they rose through the ranks ofReligious groups are far from united on the Egyptian political landscape. Neither are the liberals or seculars. But this should be taken as a positive leap towards democracy. The more voices we have, the more choices we get and the more functional mechanisms for accountability we can instill. protestors from tamed minority to a vociferous force clad in white coats as they rushed to save the fallen and provide basic humanitarian support. From martyrs to heroes, the MB scored in many rioters’ hearts and its campaign for the politicization of Islam gained momentum.
On March 19th,when millions of Egyptians voted for the first time in a rigged-free referendum for constitutional amendments, many religious spokespeople made a fatal mistake. They claimed the majority Yes vote as victory to Islam. I read through the constitutional amendments proposed thoroughly, but couldn’t find a single line of evidence to their claim. The proposed amendments to eight articles of the constitution were meant to pave the way for a decent first parliamentary and presidential electoral process. Nowhere did I see an indicationthat the MB was taking over the next elections. On the contrary, political parties started sprouting everywhere and a couple of liberal presidential candidates have already launched their presidential campaigns. The ball has started rolling. It can only pick up speed from here.
A Salafi leader took the claim a notch higher when he urged the non conservatives to just pack up and leave the country. The Yes vote has just ushered in a “true Islamic society” Salafi style, he explained. Naturally, that didn’t sit well with other Islamic entities, mainly Al Azhar and the MB. For the rest of us, we took this Sheikh’s speech as a piece of entertainment Jon Stewart style.
Anger erupted on my virtual walls. I read through thousands of tweets, commentaries and wall posts denouncing the MB, the Salafis and anyone who dared mention the word Islam in any political discourse. We all changed our virtual profiles to cartoons of Burqa covered females and made fun of the possible downturn of the revolution. Al Azhar aligned with the Sufis in a unified call for Saudi Arabia to stop meddling with Egyptian internal affairs and cut their funding to the Salafis. Then millions of protestors took to Tahrir Square to save their revolution from military and Islamic high-jackers, now perceived to conspire against us all.
Weeks later, we still get news that sectarian rifts are spiraling towards violence in Qena, Minya and other governorates. Expats, like me, lament the state of emotional chaos Egyptians are in. Living Egypt through our minds and hearts only allows us to dream for a united new Egypt. We sleep safe at night, we live, work and succeed just as we did prior to the revolution which has naturally left many martyrs and jobless hopeless souls in its wake.
We are so blindsided by our quest for democracy that we failed in the very first step towards it. We failed to embrace and accept our differences, to give our overarching ego a break for the good of the people and to stop looking at today’s political void as a goldmine for personal claim to fame. We failed to narrow the cleavages that divide us and find common grounds to build the infrastructure for democracy. Unless we stop fighting the MB and living through conspiracy theories, we won’t surface long enough to enjoy a few breaths of freedom before we sink back into a futile battle to crush religious factions that shape our society. Religious groups are far from united on the Egyptian political landscape. Neither are the liberals or seculars. But this should be taken as a positive leap towards democracy. The more voices we have, the more choices we get and the more functional mechanisms for accountability we can instill. The question is not whether to veil or not to veil. It’s to allow for freedom of choice and respect the consequences of our choice.
Laila Mahmoud Saada is an Egyptian freelance journalist and media consultant currently residing in New York. She currently works with UNESCO on crafting the communication plan for the establishment of a national museum in Cairo