Photos of women in full Islamic dress – faces covered and in long dresses – alongside old photos of women in short skirts from the 1950s and 1960s in North Africa and the Middle East are often collected on social media to promote a message.
The underlying message is: “Look what has happened to Arab societies in the last 50 years or so.”
For those who share such photos, it is the most visible sign of how their countries have regressed and abandoned ideals of progress and modernity, exemplified by the adoption of a Western way of life.
But for the conservative forces that have shaped the region in recent decades, it is quite the opposite: it is a positive act of affirmation of Muslim identity in societies that have long been colonized and whose Western way of life was first imposed by colonization. rulers, then by westernized elites disconnected from the local culture.
From Morocco to Egypt and beyond, the issue of the “Islamic dress code”, in particular the veil or hijab, has been one of the most controversial garments.
By all accounts, its spread in the region is mainly due to one factor: the emergence and eventual success of political Islam, the phenomenon also known as Islamism.
All of North Africa has powerful Islamist movements that have come to power or nearly come to power, as in the case of Algeria in the early 1990s.
Even after they were ousted from power, their influence on societies remained considerable.
But that is starting to change, according to many observers. And one of the most obvious ways to gauge this is to look at the most powerful symbol of Islamism’s impact: the hijab.
Many observers have noted that recent years have seen a steady decline in the phenomenon in North Africa.
On the Moroccan news site Al-Yaoum 24, columnist Saïd El-Zaghouti wrote recently: “It is not difficult to see that the wearing of the hijab in our Arab world, and in particular in Morocco, has and that the retreat and decline are largely due to the decline and ebb of what is known as the Islamic stream.”
Young Moroccan women have spoken to local media about the social pressure, even harassment, they face when removing the hijab. But that apparently did not deter them.
In Tunisia, where wearing the hijab was once an act of defiance as it was banned by successive autocratic regimes, it rose to popularity for a brief period after the 2011 Arab Spring, but has started to fall again recently.
Writing in the Arab Independent, Tunisian journalist Huda Al-Trabulis sheds light on the complex reasons for the appearance of the hijab in the country and its subsequent decline.
The hijab was once an act of resistance and opposition to secularism imposed from above during the rule of post-independence autocrats Habib Bourguiba and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
She then became popular in the short period following the 2011 revolution which saw the rise of the Islamist movement Ennahda, to the point that the veiled woman was promoted as the model for the Tunisian public to follow.
But then he fell out of favor when successive Islamist-dominated parliaments failed to resolve the country’s many problems and Tunisia plunged into a deep economic and political crisis.
In Egypt too, arguably the birthplace of the hijab as we know it today, the rise and relative decline are tied to the political fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egyptian women began shedding traditional face coverings nearly a century ago, and by the mid-20th century the veil had almost completely disappeared.
But the hijab made its first resurgence in the mid-1970s when then-President Anwar Sadat gave the Muslim Brotherhood the green light to operate on college campuses to combat political rivals from the secular left who had developed a considerable influence on society in the preceding decades.
The spread of the hijab continued almost unabated until 2013, when Muslim Brotherhood chairman Mohammed Morsi was removed from office.
The hostility to Islamist symbols – the hijab in the forefront – was palpable.
There were persistent reports of restaurants refusing entry to women wearing the hijab, or of swimming pools refusing entry to women wearing the burkini, the supposedly Sharia-compliant swimsuit.
Today there is a palpable decline that is difficult to quantify due to a lack of objective surveys. The evidence is largely anecdotal.
Yet the hijab remains one of the country’s most contentious issues – a cultural and political fault line no different from that surrounding abortion in the United States, with cultural and political disputes erupting across the country. regular intervals on the matter.
More recently, in Egypt, the reactions to the stabbing death of a young university student in broad daylight by her suitor after she refused to marry him were as shocking as the crime itself.
For everyone, the crime was heinous and duly condemned. But as soon as it emerged that the victim had been exposed, reactions began to diversify.
A famous TV preacher has urged women to cover their bodies properly to avoid a similar fate. He actually said, “Cover your face with a basket.”
And when her university sought to honor her, it produced a poster of her with her apparently doctored photo, making it look like she was wearing the hijab.
Both reactions sparked a barrage of angry reactions from secularized sectors of society.
The young man was sentenced to death by hanging. But a campaign sprang into action to defend the convicted murderer.
No one knows for sure who is behind it all, but many wealthy Islamist suspects in exile have hired the country’s highest-paid lawyer to defend the culprit in the appeals process.
An intervention by al-Azhar – Egypt’s highest religious institution – to calm tensions ironically poured more oil on the fire.
The Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, said that not wearing the hijab does not make a woman a renegade, but merely a woman who has disobeyed God.
The declaration which aimed to appease secular sectors of society further enraged the rights of women and other secular groups.
Once again, social media was filled with impassioned pleas for the hijab as an inalienable part of the faith and equally vocal condemnations of the cloth.
Although support for the hijab seems to be declining in the region, especially among young people, the perception that it is inseparable from Muslim identity has become largely entrenched.
So much so that whenever a government – especially in Europe – introduces restrictions on its wearing in public institutions, it is usually denounced as a war against Islam itself.
Mere criticism of the hijab in Western democracies has also become almost synonymous with “Islamophobia” or attacks on minority rights.
But in Muslim-majority societies, it is still seen as part of a legitimate campaign for the liberation of women from a stifling tradition.
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