The Return of the Veil

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Leggy young women are sashaying down the catwalk, their slim hips twitching to an Oriental techno beat. The fashion show sponsored by the "Road to Paradise" charity organization has turned out to be one of the big events of the Cairo social season, with hundreds of well-to-do Egyptians packed into a hotel ballroom resplendent with views of the River Nile, bouquets of red roses and platters of smoked salmon — and, of course, the beautiful models, including Miss Egypt 2006. "She looks so funky, I love it!" cries Heba Reda, one of the patrons, as a model whooshes past in a black and white pants suit, assessorized with a pair of high-heeled sandals and, oh yes, an Islamic veil, which covers every last strand of hair on her gorgeous head.

If you figured that the veil is only for oppressed women, and perhaps female suicide bombers with Osama bin Laden's notion of the road to paradise in mind, think again. This is a glitzy fashion show specifically catering to Muslim women who wear the veil, or hijab, an Arabic term referring to a headscarf and loose-fitting clothes that cover all but a woman's face, hands and feet. In Egypt, the largest Arab country, with a population of 72 million, the hijab has become decidedly mainstream. Designers, stylists, boutiques and fashion magazines make up a booming new industry serving the growing percentage of Egyptian women who choose to dress the Islamic way. Foreign brands have begun to cash in on the trend, as well; among the unlikely co-sponsors of the runway show were Guess Jeans and the local distributor for the French luxury house Chopard.

"The veil has become contagious," explains Nabila el-Hakim, a local haute couture designer who estimates that 60% of her customers are now veiled. "I am adding sleeves and closing cleavage." Experts say the trend is part of an Islamic cultural wave traced back to Israel's humiliating defeat of Egypt in the 1967 war. More recently, they say, the quest for a stronger Islamic identity led more women to take up the veil after the Sept. 11 attacks set off Muslim-Western tensions. As often as not, the pressure to veil is as much social as religious, with unveiled women increasingly the target of peer comments like, "You are a good person. It is a pity you just need the hijab."

Some Egyptian women have gone so far as to adopt the niqab, the face-covering, head-to-toe formless black gown worn in Saudi Arabia, where religious police enforce the ultra-conservative Wahhabi brand of Islam. Anthropologist Huda Lutfi, who is unveiled, says that in the Egyptian context, the trend is not as regressive as it might seem to Westerners. "Women feel that as long as they are wearing the hijab, they are respected on the street in the eyes of men," she explains. "The hijab is not a movement for women to go back home, but to be comfortable and move more freely in public."

The "Road to Paradise" gala, with its splashes of colors and feminine contours here and there, illustrates how Egyptian women are typically applying a loose interpretation to the Islamic injunction for women to safeguard their chastity and avoid the attentions of men. "I love Allah and I also love to dress up," explains emcee Do'aa Amer, a popular personality on an Arab satellite channel, who took up the veil herself after a pilgrimage to Mecca six years ago. "The veiled woman can be stylish and hip." Adds Amina Shelbaya, whose Lips agency supplied most of the models for the show: "To be veiled does not mean to get fat and not care about your looks."

Fundamentalists, for their part, are pleased by the swing to Islam but hardly with the way many young Egyptians are taking the veil to sexy extremes. Some night clubbers are hitting the lounge, for example, in stilettos and cover girl makeup, their hair lightly graced by a Fendi scarf. On campuses, female students pull their tresses behind a sequined wrap, worn over an ensemble of jeans and a tight-fitting t-shirt that leaves little of their anatomy to the imagination. Noha Mamdouh, 18, a Cairo University student, is wearing a pink and beige scarf with a matching slinky top tucked into hip-riding jeans as she sits sipping smoothies with her girlfriends in an upmarket café. "We are aware that we need to be veiled," she explains. "But we are young and we want to be modern and trendy." Such attitudes draw double takes from conservative Egyptians like Magda Samaha, who scoffs, "These are covered, yet naked, women."

Backstage at the "Road to Paradise" gala, the models really are naked, or nearly. Sabila Ahmed, 24, has spent the evening getting zipped in and out of costumes that are not really her thing. Like the other models, whose diamond belly button studs and henna tattoos are exposed between outfit changes, she shows no interest in donning the hijab herself — except when professional duty calls, of course. "I love revealing clothes," she explains, before squeezing back into her own tight jeans, skimpy top and 2-inch heels. As she struts outside to hail a taxi, her short brown hair blows free in the wind, marking her as a member of Egypt's shrinking, unveiled minority.

—With reporting by Scott MacLeod/Cairo