Veiling, particularly youth veiling, has captured the rapt attention of the Western media and scholarly community. Whether in France, Iran, Turkey or Egypt, veiling — the adoption by women of Islamic dress (al-zayy al-islami) — is often represented in highly ideological terms. Veiling has been explained as an assertion of cultural authenticity and Islamic feminism, a sign of both resistance and submission to patriarchy, a rejection of modernity, Western imperialism and corrupt local secular regimes, a genuine desire by women to live more piously and a practice born out of economic necessity. Especially when taken together, there is a degree of plausibility in all the above interpretations. But these explanations of veiling tend to overlook the ambivalence within cultural-religious practices of which veiling is one. In light of political-cultural changes taking place in Egypt in recent years, another dimension should be added to discussions of contemporary practices of veiling. This is the increasingly observable phenomenon throughout the streets of Cairo of what can be called “downveiling.”

Downveiling refers to a subtle and seemingly growing tendency among certain circles of urban Egyptian women toward less concealing and less conservative forms of Islamic dress. Partly, downveiling reflects the struggle between Islamists and the political elite to exert influence over the everyday practices of Egyptians. But more pointedly, downveiling shows how multiple factors, beyond the control or manipulation of any single group, converge to shape the socio-cultural terrain where ongoing debates and negotiations over dress, culture and identity politics play themselves out.

Diversity of Islamic Fashion

Downveiling in Egypt, while it shares features with the much-touted “bad hijab” in contemporary Iran, differs from it in fundamental ways. In Iran the government stipulates that all women veil from the age of maturity. The standard middle-class urban attire for women in the years following the 1979 Islamic revolution was a black scarf covering all the hair, thick black stockings and loose-fitting ankle-length black manteau (overcloak). Growing numbers of female supporters of Iran’s reformist movement express a combination of fashion sense and political defiance by flouting the Islamic Republic’s dress codes. Young urban women in particular can be seen wearing their scarves pulled high atop their heads to reveal frosted tufts of hair, sporting open-toe sandals, make-up and ever shorter, lighter and more-tailored manteaus.

In Egypt, on the other hand, the “new” veiling was pioneered in large part by Islamist university students in the early 1970s, on a voluntary basis and sometimes in tacit opposition to the nominally secular state. Young women took to manufacturing their own austere, loose-fitting clothing and head covers from dark-colored, low-cost synthetic fabrics. [1] As al-zayy al-islami was steadily adopted by a broader spectrum of urban women of various ages and social backgrounds, a certain diversity of Islamic fashion naturally appeared. From the mid-1990s, however, something else began to occur: many women seemed to be moving toward lesser degrees of veiling.

Urban women wear three main types of Islamic dress, within which there are multiple gradations: the hijab, a simple scarf that covers the hair and might be worn with anything from jeans and a T-shirt to a long-sleeve dress, the khimar, a substantially longer nylon cloak that drapes over the torso and arms and is usually worn with a long skirt, and the niqab, a full face veil ordinarily worn with an ankle-length dress and gloves. A resident of Cairo since 1986, I first became aware of downveiling when a number of acquaintances from diverse social backgrounds and of different ages modified their Islamic dress to less conservative and less concealing forms than they had previously worn. Downveiling women might remove the face cover from their niqab, substitute the hijab for the khimar, wear shorter and snugger clothing with the hijab, or remove their hijab altogether in an act of unveiling.

The practice of downveiling, which appears to be increasing exponentially, can be explained by four independent, yet ultimately interrelated factors: the state’s attempts to curb private, embodied expressions of Islamism, the social influence of youth culture and the growth of Islamic urban chic, the practical needs of urban women and the emergence of new players on Egypt’s stage of cultural politics.

State Policing of Attire

A pervasive manifestation of the Islamic resurgence in Egypt has been the informal Islamization of public spaces and institutions and the increase in Islamic dress by both women and men. The government initially treated socio-cultural expressions of Islamization as benign. But as armed conflict with militant Islamist groups escalated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government began to regard al-zayy al-islami as an overt display of politics, and even a threat to the state. Since then, the regime has discouraged and even tried to prohibit men and women from wearing particular types of Islamic attire.

Men sporting short beards of the sort said to be worn by the Prophet, for instance, are forbidden from entering government recreational clubs and required to undergo a rigorous security clearance before obtaining a driver’s license. Veiled women, with rare exception, are not allowed to appear on state-run television as presenters of any sort, whereas women wearing the niqab are banned from any number of state and private educational institutions and workplaces.

The biggest crackdown on Islamic dress has come in the area of education, where female students at all educational levels have been the targets of the state’s de-Islamization dress policies. Minister of Education Kamal Bahaeddin feared that Egypt’s gradually Islamizing schools and universities were slipping dangerously out of the state’s control and into the hands of “extremists.” He posited that extremists were infiltrating the state’s education apparatus, spreading anti-government propaganda, and most alarming of all, gaining access to the ideological and identity formation of the youth. The veiling of schoolgirls, the Minister argued, figured prominently in the Islamists’ political project.

Having oriented education policy around national security, Bahaeddin enacted harsh measures. He began purging Islamist teachers and administrators from schools, intensified the screening and surveillance of students in teacher training colleges and pushed highly controversial legislation on school uniforms. Ministerial Order 113 of 1994 on the Unification of School Uniforms legally forbids girls in grades 1-5 from wearing the hijab and requires that girls in middle school (grades 6-8) have written permission from a guardian if they wear the hijab, thereby giving parents rather than teachers authority over their schoolgirl’s attire. The law prohibits the niqab at all educational levels, arguing that it presents a security risk at schools and university campuses because it conceals the wearer’s identity.

In the wake of the ministerial order, dozens of students were suspended from schools and universities, largely for refusing to remove their niqab. Aside from being strongly contested in the press, the uniform legislation triggered a spate of lawsuits against the Ministry of Education. The well-known Islamist lawyer Montasser al-Zayyat alone tried and won over 25 niqab-related cases in the lower courts. However, in a 1996 appeal that reached the Supreme Constitutional Court — Egypt’s highest court — Ministerial Order 113 was ruled constitutional and therefore enforceable. To ensure that schools complied with the disputed decree, Ministry of Education inspectors and state security force units were dispatched to schools throughout the country. Guards blocked any students dressed in defiance of the regulations from entering their schools. Many school communities reacted to the state’s actions with outrage, and some unveiled students even took the veil in protest. But the new regulation also served as a powerful catalyst for downveiling.

Schoolgirl Fashion

The most immediate and visible change in the wake of Ministerial Order 113 was that most primary school girls in Cairo took off their scarves. At more conservative schools which had previously enforced the hijab, adolescent girls continued to veil. Influenced by urban fashion trends, however, schoolgirls found ways of making what they considered their dowdy school uniforms more stylish. At a conservative private “Islamic” middle school in Cairo — a school that incorporates religious rituals and symbols into its daily life — the pre-1994 uniform consisted of a nylon khimar and a shapeless galabiyya. Capitalizing on the governmental surveillance at their school following the uniform regulation, students replaced their khimars with shorter cotton scarves and their galabiyyas with tailored skirts and blouses. About the student-led uniform rebellion, one schoolgirl remarked, “Can you believe they used to make us wear those old-fashioned clothes? It was embarrassing to be seen walking around in the streets in them!”

Other groups of young women, particularly university students, could be seen in larger numbers in Cairo’s public spaces wearing outfits that merged pious Islamic attire with urban chic. They dressed up the hijab by wearing it with designer jeans, pumps, slit skirts and a range of other snugger, shorter and brighter-colored clothing. These more daring manifestations of al-zayy al-islami, while they existed before 1994, increased in the wake of government efforts to curb “extremist” dress. At the same time, a flourishing market developed to cater to the growing fashion trends associated with hijab chic. Clothing boutiques offering the spectrum of Islamic fashions to nearly all social strata now abound in the city. In the upscale district of Muhandiseen, a shop called Flash lil-Muhajjabat (Flash for Hijab Wearers) displays an array of embellished and multi-colored scarves on heavily made-up face mannequins which line the front window. [2] In the popular, low-income clothing market of Wikalat al-Balah, cheaper imitations of the boutique fashions are for sale.

As the dress choices of students of all ages broaden, many young women express ambiguity over how to comport themselves correctly. Two 12-year old girls from the Islamic school mentioned above had the following conversation when, walking home after school with me, they saw an ample woman sporting form-fitting pants and a hijab.

Girl One: You see lots of people these days walking in the street with a scarf and tight pants or stretch pants. Pants, anyway, are haram for girls.
Girl Two: But you yourself wear pants, and stretch pants at that.
Girl One: I do, but I’m not veiled. I don’t wear a scarf. I’m talking about people who have made the decision to wear the scarf and still wear tight pants. People say that it’s haram for the woman who wears a scarf to also wear pants.
Girl Two: Look, I’m not veiled either, but I don’t wear stretch pants and low-cut blouses that expose my chest. I’ll wear a blouse, a skirt, something like that. Even girls who don’t wear the hijab should still be modest about their clothes.

Like so many young women in Cairo, these schoolgirls are negotiating morality and fashion in the shifting terrain of urban youth culture.

Fashion and Functionality

In the interest of fashion, but also in pursuit of comfort and functionality, middle to lower middle-class urban professional women have opted to downveil as well. A number of women aged 30-50 with whom I have spoken acknowledge shifting in recent years to lesser degrees of veiling for largely utilitarian reasons. Some women explain that the tight nylon khimar caused their hair to thin — in some cases leading to bald patches — so they had substituted it for a lighter and looser-fitting cotton scarf. Other women who routinely walk long distances to and from work complained that the khimar, while perhaps religiously preferable to the hijab, proved too cumbersome. The khimar restricted their movements or caused them to perspire excessively. Some unmarried niqab wearers (munaqqabat) removed the face cover of their veil because they felt their prospects for marriage were diminished when suitors could not see their faces. Those who downveiled or unveiled in the early 1990s recall how they did so at the risk of social exclusion. Now, as the intensity of Egypt’s Islamist trend wanes and growing numbers of women engage in downveiling, the risks are fewer.

Despite the increased flexibility in Islamic dress, veiling continues to elicit controversy, involving actors from ever-wider social groups. Two unprecedented recent episodes brought elite, private foreign educational institutions into the public debate over veiling in Egypt. In the fall of 2000, a 12-year old girl and her three younger brothers (ages eleven, nine and four) were expelled from Champollion School in Alexandria, a private school attached to the French Ministry of Education, because the girl wore the hijab to school in contravention of the school’s secular policy. It was, in fact, the school’s Parent Council that recommended the expulsions, on the familiar grounds that the children represented a security threat. The children’s parents are currently involved in a complex lawsuit involving litigation in both France and Egypt.

In January 2001, the American University in Cairo (AUC) officially banned the face veil after an undergraduate student donned the niqab on campus for the first time in the university’s 80-year history. The AUC administration cited security concerns and invoked principles of liberal education to justify the niqab ban. [3] Ardent debates among students and members of the press ensued, many participants decrying the duplicity of a liberalism that restricts personal freedoms and a student’s choice to dress as she deems appropriate. Although the student initially threatened the university with a lawsuit, she reluctantly opted instead to downveil. She removed her face veil and continues to study at AUC.

The above cases demonstrate how cultural politics are mediated through disparate local and transnational players and class interests. The foreign elite educational institutions reflect, in part, the policies of the state. By invoking notions of secularism and Western liberalism, these institutions not only further politicize the debates on Islamic dress, but play their own role in influencing women’s choices of dress.

While downveiling may have been triggered by the state’s concerns with national security, it has assumed a momentum of its own as factors such as youth culture, fashion, the practical needs of urban women and the emergence of new players in Egypt’s cultural politics have come to the fore. Islamic dress, like any socio-religious or cultural practice, has been invested with multiple symbolic meanings and practical functions. The movement of some Egyptian women towards downveiling testifies to the contested and shifting nature of both veiling and the Islamization of society itself.


[1] See Fadwa al-Guindi, Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance (London: Berg, 1999).
[2] Patrick Haenni, “Ils N’en Ont Pas Fini avec l’Orient: De Quelques Islamisations non-Islamistes,” Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Mediterranee 85-86 (Spring 1999).
[3] A passage from the e-mail message circulated on January 23, 2001 by the AUC administration to the entire AUC community states: “A liberal arts education requires dialogue and intellectual interaction with colleagues and with other members of the University community. Face veiling inhibits this interaction. Students who choose to cover the face should seek another type of education.”

How to cite this article:

Linda Herrera "Downveiling," Middle East Report 219 (Summer 2001).

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