World Hijab Day: Muslims debate where the headscarf belongs

The holiday comes just after a woman anchor appeared on Egyptian State TV wearing the hijab for the first time. 

The roots of "World Hijab Day" were planted on this day in 2002, marking the day that France banned the wearing of the headscarf in schools. Ten years later, the presence of the veil in public life remains a lighting rod issue, from Europe to the Middle East to Asia. 

The hashtag #worldhijabday or #IHSD – International Hijab Solidarity Day – trended on social networking websites worldwide today, used both by people extolling the virtues of the head covering and supporting a woman’s right to choose to don it and those who question whether it plays a role is oppressing women. 

The issue took center stage in the Middle East this week when Egypt’s state-run television put Fatma Nabil, a woman wearing a simple white veil covering her hair and neck, on camera to read the midday news. It was the first time in Egyptian television’s half-century-long history that a woman wearing the head anchored the news. Even though the vast majority of Egyptian women veil, leaving just the face visible – and a much smaller minority cover the rest of the face – successive Egyptian governments tried to present a more secular image in official channels. 

Nabil, who worked in various positions in state television, but always off the air, and then for Misr 25, a satellite station run by the Muslim Brotherhood, said that her on-air return to Egyptian TV marked a “historic day” and would correct the “bitter injustice” she’d felt over the issue in the past.

Many in Egypt, men and women included, said the move to have veiled broadcasters reflected Egypt’s reality. Three more will be put on air, said Salah Abdel-Maqsoud, the new information minister.

“I think in a country where upward of 90 percent of the women, according to some estimates, are veiled, it is ludicrous to maintain a policy whereby covering one's hair meant being banned from airtime. This is therefore a reversal of a long-outdated, unfair policy,” says Mohamed El Dahshan, an economist and journalist who co-authored “The Tahrir Dairies,” a collective memoir of the 18 days of the Egyptian 2011 revolution.

“At the same time, as people have been watching Arab TV channels for a long time now, the sight of a veiled newsreader is neither shocking nor unusual,” he adds. “This is not a matter of Islam creeping in public life. This is about putting a newsreader who looks like most of her female co-citizens.”

There is still discrimination in other top echelons of Egyptian life, he says. “In a number of state institutions veiled women have met this glass ceiling. Another major one is the ministry of foreign affairs, a staunchly anti-hijab institution where veiled women would either not be sent on foreign missions at all or restricted to a handful of Islamic countries,” he says.

Though it was never official policy, the upper echelons of government have long preferred to present an image of a modern Egypt, and the headscarf was seen by secularists as something of a throwback, as well as a symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Across the region and further east, news of Nabil’s appointment was taken by supporters as an important step towards acceptance of the Islamic headscarf.

“Absolutely, this is an important development as every person, women in this case, should have the freedom to say or do whatever they wish and have the right to have their voice heard,” a young Pakistani woman named Saba Bawa wrote on World Hijab Day's Facebook page.

World Hijab Day was actually launched by Jamaat-i-Islami, Pakistan’s biggest Islamist group, to “counter the infidels’ conspiracies against the Islamic tenets,” notes Pakistani blogger Batool Zehra in the country’s Express Tribune. “But it is not just the feelings of earnest adherents that World Hijab Day has stirred. Sure enough, the liberal socialist brigade has jumped in the fray, starting a hashtag – ReasonsToPutMenInBurqas.”

“Despite all this," she writes, "World Hijab Day feels strangely authentic, and that might be the most disturbing thing. Free thinking is not what it used to be.” 

Marvi Sirmed, a Pakistani columnist, wrote on Twitter that she’d been “watching interviews of Hijabi women” on TV. Most of those featured, she wrote, said they choose to wear the veil because it makes them “feel secure."

“Choice?” she posed, questioning whether the sense of feeling less secure if unveiled equalled a kind of pressure to cover up.

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