I put on my long red cardigan. I fixed the wide white band in place covering the front of my hair. I stood in front of the mirror, holding a small pin between my lips and rolled the colourful scarf over my head like I had been doing for four years. But that time, before heading to a Galal Amin lecture in a nearby bookshop, I looked at myself despairingly. I rolled back the scarf, took it down and let it fall around my neck. I took off the band.
“Do I look okay? Amn’t I still modest?” I asked my mum, now looking at myself in the hall’s mirror.
My aunt was there too.
“You look great,” my aunt said, “Let your hair down.”
I did. And I never put my hejab back on since then.
It was January 2010. On my way to the bookshop, I pushed down the car window wide open. I was dumbstruck by the beauty of feeling cold air brush against my neck and through my hair. I couldn’t repress my smile. It felt so good and it made me feel guilty - even now as I write it, though for a different reason.
I have finally decided, after these years, to write about that moment. I had repeatedly refused before because I did not want to make drama out of a very normal story. I was never forced to wear the hejab, I did not take it off because I felt it oppressed me and I am not an anti-hejab advocate in any way. I also refused to write because I did not want to put up a story at a time when it has become “in-fashion” for girls to write about their journeys to freedom from the hejab. I did not want my story to be picked up by cliche feminists referring to me as a victim, whose mind is trapped, and still afraid to claim “all liberty”.
This is why I hesitated before writing about the beauty of feeling cold air on my skin. In my head, this doesn’t go into a whole detailed analysis on how the hejab can disfigure a girl’s relationship with her body, how it denies her simple natural pleasures, etc. The air felt good. That was it. I am sure when I try Turkish ‘ayran for the first time I will feel the same. No drama.
So, setting it clear to disregard unjustified sensations, I decided that I will finally write, not just about it, but also about the reasons that kept me off the writing.
My story is very simple. I think this is why I was always at a loss of a good eloquent answer to the question: “Why did you take off the hejab?” And I believe this is the case for many girls who did the same.
I wore the hejab when I was 13 (in 2005). At the time my family did not approve, not just because they thought I was too young, but because we were living in Ireland. They were afraid it would make it even more difficult for me at school - already a foreigner and not very social (amid much ‘Islamophobic tensions’). But I insisted. I wore it for four years in four different schools and towns around Ireland. It was fine at times and difficult at others. I considered taking it off halfway through, but decided against it at the last minute.
As time went on, however, I realized that my hejab has started becoming more and more about myself. It was no longer a spiritual act. It was not about my relationship with God anymore. It fell down to a personal challenge where I refused to submit to the social difficulties I met because of wearing it. I thought I was defending my culture and identity, but it turned out I was only defending myself.
After I arrived in Cairo in summer 2009, I lost the fear of guilt I had toward taking off the hejab. If I had taken it off in Ireland, I always thought, no one would realize it was a personal choice. They would always remember that the Muslim girl rebelled against her backward religion. And I had already met such situations where I was categorized as the “Muslim girl” and never as “Reem”. I did not want that to happen.
So after six months in Cairo, I confessed clearly to myself that I no longer represent the veil on my head. It contradicted how I was feeling and thinking at the time and I could not keep on announcing every day that I represent something when I didn’t. I took it off for the time being. And that was it.
This is my “casting off the veil” story. Unfortunately, Mubarak, Morsi and El-Sisi didn’t get to play a part in the drama. Belly dancers of El-Haram Street where I live did not infiltrate my ideas on body image either. I did not go mad after reading Nawal El-Saadawi. I am not living a dual life because I am scared of my ultra-conservative family. A Salafist man did not attack me on the street. Nothing of the sort.
I have no problem with the drama. In fact, I have to confess it isn’t exactly “dramatic”. I am sure there are many girls whose stories aren’t as simple as mine. I cannot deny that taking off the hejab is a more or less taboo subject in our society that can involve many tensions. But I also know that are a lot like myself who simply made a personal choice and do not want to get their action zoned into politics.
This isn’t an over-simplification either. It is true that more girls are taking off the hejab in Egypt. (Or actually, that more and more girls are braver to take risks and defy rules in a wider context). And this definitely has social reasons worthy of shedding light upon and addressing. However, it is nonsensical for me that this is a “massive trend”, that this is because of the “Muslim Brotherhood”, that hejab is a synonym for oppression for these girls, and that all those who took it off made the better more civilised choice.
I do not understand the elitist point of view writers take when writing about the issue. It is very shallow, generalizing, and stereotyping. It doesn’t put it in a proper fair wide social context that deeply understands this society - its women, its religious practices, its Islamists, its unannounced norms. (Or writers who force taking off the hejab without strong and clear justification into a political context).
These stances have always bothered me. I often felt they are an insult more than anything. Every woman has her own history, her people, her heavy baggage of experiences and she is a part of her society. It is unfair to lump her actions and what represents her into one or two vague categories that do not always reflect her reality.