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A public affair

Perhaps ministers shouldn’t speak publicly on private matters? The minister of culture’s had a busy week. He set off a firestorm and also managed to drag to the surface matters that lie uneasily beneath this society’s surface. Last week, Dr Farouk Hosni criticized the hijab or veil and those who wear it. Hey, presto. Public …

Perhaps ministers shouldn’t speak publicly on private matters?

The minister of culture’s had a busy week. He set off a firestorm and also managed to drag to the surface matters that lie uneasily beneath this society’s surface.

Last week, Dr Farouk Hosni criticized the hijab or veil and those who wear it. Hey, presto. Public reaction was swift and vehement. Al-Azhar is angry. The Muslim Brotherhood is angry – they’re demanding he apologizes or resigns. Citizens are angry, including all those women who elect to wear it, thereby contributing to the country’s cultural backwardness and stagnation, according to the minister.

It’s a free country, isn’t it? Why shouldn’t he express his opinion? Who would have guessed?

Farouk Hosni, that’s who should have guessed.

Over the 20 years he’s been minister, Dr Hosni has developed a reputation as a highly intelligent and cultured man. He’s articulate, engaging and invariably polite. I remember shooting him for a television story years ago, as an undergraduate. He was kind and helpful, allowing much more time than most people – let alone a minister – would have accorded a student. He’s also extremely savvy; he’d have to be, having negotiated several cabinets and at least three prime ministers.

At the end of the day, Hosni should know that, unless he’s chatting with close friends or family over dinner, he doesn’t have a right to a “personal opinion. No public figure does. He’s a cabinet minister and as such, any opinion he voices is public policy. It’s unfortunate, but such are the burdens of public life. (Witness the US Department of State writhing in agony every time President George W. Bush lets fly an unscripted comment.)

And in Hosni’s case, it’s a little difficult to play the personal opinion card since the “personal comments he made were to the country’s leading independent Arabic-language daily, Al-Masry Al-Youm. There’s nothing terribly intimate about being read across the country. Especially since newspapers don’t make for discourse – unless the minister wanted to spend the next couple of weeks answering a letters page dedicated to the subject. Papers deal in information, not conversation.

Nor is it clear what the minister’s public relations people were doing. At a television interview when the announcer, Moataz Demerdash, attempted to give the minister a way to dig himself out of the hole, Minister Hosni firmly burrowed further in. He was careful to say that he had nothing against those who wore the veil and indeed, had many employees who did. A nod, one supposes, to the old “some of my best friends are Jews comment. (Although, come to think of it, the minister didn’t mention if he had any friends who did, just employees.)

He merely didn’t like the hijab, he said, in the same way that he didn’t like wearing the galabeya. Fair enough.

Unfortunately, he went on to say that he enjoyed seeing women in traditional fellhai (peasant) dress, he didn’t see why he couldn’t criticize the hijab, the constitution did not have provisions for it, that it wasn’t the sixth pillar of Islam and that it wasn’t a “fard or religious requirement.

And with that, Minister Hosni’s chances of clearing up the mess went up in a puff of rancid-smelling smoke.

Dr Hosni may be an intelligent and cultured man, but he is not a religious authority. He is not a man whom people consider qualified to make any religious pronouncements. He deals with art and culture, not religion, and, as such, has little credibility on the matter.

Whether or not the hijab is a fard has been frantically debated since Islam’s early days and especially so over the past century. But both sides of the argument have turned to religious scholars for expert opinions.

The grand mufti of Al-Azhar is another highly educated man. Mohamed Tantawi is a multi-lingual, soft-spoken, moderate man with a doctorate who undoubtedly has his own personal opinions on art, but I doubt Sotheby’s will be calling on him any time soon. Nor would I go to him for advice on my art collection. It all goes back to credibility.

And perhaps it wasn’t wise to drag the constitution in, either. In a country where one’s constitutional rights invariably take a back seat to the quarter century-old Emergency Laws, at a time when the government and the controlling party are trying to push through constitutional amendments – to the fury of opposition parties – using the constitution to protect an argument is a little disingenuous.

Or is it? The current prevailing wisdom is that Hosni’s remarks might have been intended to scatter the baying opposition pack that is snapping at the government’s heels, by throwing them off the scent.

The opposition parties may be divided – very loosely – into the secular and the religious. The different parties have very different ideas on the separation of church and state and this matter is just the sort of thing that leads to heated – and invariably futile – ideological arguments.

It’s just the sort of thing that might dissipate the opposition nuisance.

Finally, Hosni’s remarks about appreciating peasant garb but not the hijab opens the door onto a fundamental flaw in his argument. It also opens the door onto a serious stereotyping issue that slices across certain sectors of this society.

Hosni’s appreciation of peasant women in their ethnic garb may be an entirely individual matter – the man is, after all, an artist. But it’s unclear why he would insist on his appreciation of ethnic dress while criticizing a woman’s right to voluntarily dress a certain way to express her religious beliefs. And, there is something bizarre in saying that one appreciates ‘ethnic’ clothes in one’s own country. That one recognizes that such dress represents something that is peculiarly “Egyptian while never considering actually wearing it. It both sets one apart from those who would wear such dress and stereotypes what is or is not ‘Egyptian.’

Of course “national dress is no longer worn in most countries – Germans don’t wear lederhosen unless it’s a special event celebrating some “national matter involving copious amounts of beer. So there’s nothing unusual about not choosing to wear national dress, no one’s advocating that we all throw off our suits. The problem in Egypt is that such dress is linked to certain social and economic strata. And unfortunately, to some, the hijab has become inextricable from these social links. To some, women who choose to wear a hijab represent a certain (read: lower) socio-economic strata. Clearly, they come from a background and mindset that is bizarre and wishes to drag us back to the Middle Ages. Indeed Hosni used the word ‘backwards.’

Clearly, they are not like ‘us.’

This ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality is rarely voiced clearly but it shows up every day in a kind of invisible arm’s length mentality. Veiled women are discriminated against every day – there are many jobs they cannot apply for. Nor is it an unofficial discrimination. For example, with a sole exception on one religious program, there are no veiled women on Egyptian television. Clearly, this is not the image we want the world to see.

It leads to the kind of fear and stereotyping that we don’t need; we’re already being bombarded with such stereotypes from the West. There, the veil is alternately vilified and eroticized but uniformly misunderstood. It is never a personal choice, but always a mark of yawning ideological chasm.

But foreigners can at least be allowed the excuse of ignorance. What’s our excuse? An irrational fear that marks a deep-seated insecurity? Hosni isn’t unusual – he just voiced what many have on their minds.

This country has those who fear and despise the veil because it’s a physical manifestation of ‘the other.’ And it has those who see the lack of it as a religious wrong that must be righted.

We don’t need this kind of suspicious hysteria. This country’s going through a turbulent time and perhaps our time would be better spent dealing with public matters and leaving private ones to private citizens. It’s a little like examining a house with rotten foundations and deciding th
at the windows need painting.

Our constitution says that this is a secular country with freedom of choice. I should not be looked down upon for exercising my right to express my religious views by wearing a veil. Nor should I be forced to wear it. Those who feel that the veil should be obligatory are perfectly free to move to countries that mandate it. I hear Afghanistan’s lovely at this time of year.

And perhaps public figures can accept their lot in life, which is that private opinions should be kept private.

Mirette F. Mabrouk is the publisher of The Daily Star Egypt.

Topics: Wael Ghonim

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