Veiled women face discrimination in the workplace and public spaces
CAIRO: In a country with a predominate Muslim community and age-old traditions that encourage a modest dress code for all women regardless of faith, it is surprising to many to hear that veiled women face discrimination.
It isn t just the recent controversial statement made by Ministry of Culture Farouk Hosni patronizing the veil as a sign of regression (it s debated that his remarks were nothing but a well-time political stunt), but also other widespread practices such as denying veiled women certain jobs in fields like televised media, advertising, tourism and diplomatic representation.
Some restaurants openly state they don t allow veiled women in.
Those who oppose the veil do so from a higher intellectual platform – or at least they claim to.
The bottom line though is that it has become politically correct to criticize the veil by denouncing it as regressive – opposing it is liberalism and supporting it is conservatism if not terrorism, as one state-run newspaper editor told two veiled journalists.
Not only has it become politically correct, but also culturally correct to discriminate against the veil and women’s dressing style in general, according to Gamal Eid, manager of the Arab Company for Human Rights Information.
Discrimination against women and judging them according to whether they are veiled or not is part of the Egyptian culture’s strong tradition of not accepting the other, Eid said.
Egyptians do not respect individual differences, Eid added.
This is even more surprising, not only because of the historical roots of the veil in this country, but because the same people who denounce it claim to be defendants of freedom of expression and consequently opponents of racism.
Yet, it has become acceptable to say that women who choose to wear the veil are regressive. Many fail to see the similarity between saying this and saying someone is of a lower intellectual status because she has darker skin or believes in a certain faith.
Not withstanding the differences in wording, saying this about the veil is the same as patronizing a community or an individual according to their race or faith, or denouncing a community as wrong just because they are different or think differently.
A little noteworthy hint, which many liberals seem to ignore, is that the same human rights organizations that defended the right of Bahaais to have a recognized faith, among other minority discrimination struggles in the country, are the same organizations that support face veiled women s right to schooling and university housing. It all falls under the individual right to practice faith without being denounced or discriminated against.
The debate regarding the veil in Egypt often gets sidetracked into the issue of whether covering women s hair is fard (a religious obligation) or not. But this is not the point. The point is that many women believe it is an obligation, and instead of respecting their choice – not accepting or approving the choice, but simply respecting it -many choose to be condescending about it.
The headscarf hasn’t fully disassociated itself from the early 20th century image that tied it with repressive ideas.
Over the years, the veil has changed in its connotations and the meanings it represents – from being tied to oppression in the early 20th century, to a rise in career opportunities for women and political representation in the 1970s and ’80s to a mere religious practice in the late 1990s that left a still blossoming tendency for individuality among the young.
But many people are still stuck in the 1920s and others haven t moved beyond the 70s.
It has become increasingly difficult for veiled women, especially young well-educated ones, who have been denied well-deserved jobs on the basis of whether they wear the veil.
Others have been expelled from jobs they once held after deciding to take up the veil. The first Egyptian female pilot was fired from her job when she decided to don a headscarf; three TV presenters on national TV were suspended when they took up the veil and in spite of a court ruling ordering their return to previous posts they are still stuck in off-camera administrative jobs.
Hotels don t hire veiled women for reception desks but keep them where they don t interact with clientele; many active career women have stories to tell about discrimination against the veil.
Unfortunately, being on guard, defensive, explaining why they chose the veil or going out of their way to prove to condescending eyes that they are neither close-minded nor have terrorist tendencies has become the norm for almost all veiled women.