Egypt uncovered: the Islamic veil debate

Debate over Islamic veil ignited in Egypt by journalist and author Sherif El Shobashy

Updated Jul 28, 2015

Much to the shock of the Egyptian public, Sherif El Shobashy - a renowned Egyptian journalist and author - published an invitation on his blog two days ago for all veiled women to gather in Tahrir square in downtown Cairo and take their veils off, in a symbolic defiant act against what he called “political Islam.”

Sherif El Shobashy had in the past worked for five years at UNESCO in Paris, and was in charge of Al Ahram office also in France between 1985 and 2002, until he chose to return to Egypt and head the Cairo international film festival between 2002 and 2005.He later left the festival, citing difficulties with funding the event.

Following the Jan. 25 2011 Tahrir protests, social media campaigns urged the transitional government to appoint El Shobashy as a minister of culture. He later declined and explained that his work as a journalist is constantly evolving and he didn’t wish to interrupt this.

Joining El Shobashy in his calls for women to abandon the Islamic veil is Islamic scholar Islam Behery, whose views have been disputed by many among both the general public and the Al Azhar sheikhs. Behery claims the veil has no grounds in Islam, and that it was imposed on Egyptian women forcibly by the Wahhabi ideology emanating from Saudi Arabia. Islam Behery has a masters degree in the History of Islam from Wales University, and worked in the Islamic Studies center of Al Youm Al Sabea between 2007 and 2011, which is now one of the newspapers condemning his views.

Behery has a TV talk show called “With Islam Behery” on Cairo Central TV (Al Kahera Wal Nas in Arabic) in which he dissects rather delicate Islamic principles and explains them in his own fashion. “For 30 years posters inviting women to cover up flooded the streets and even public transportation, if we claim to have a democratic atmosphere, why is it acceptable to push women to wear the veil, but not acceptable when merely inviting them to take it off,” said El Shobashy in a TV interview one day after the blog post. He added that “linking the veil with chastity is a wrong assumption, because 99% of prostitutes in Egypt are veiled”.

This comment caused an unrivaled uproar in all media outlets, producing a heated debate that is expected to last longer than usual.

TV show hosts such as Mahmoud Saad and Gaber Al Karmouty were very vocal in their opinions regarding Shobashy’s comments, criticizing El Shobashy for not fighting against bribery or helping the community in a more fruitful way rather than attacking the veil. Sherif El Shobashy is one of the writers who criticized famous Egyptian actress Hanan Turk when she wore the veil and retreated from the spotlight, saying “Hanan Turk’s veil is not cause for celebration, an artist like her cutting her brilliant career in short is not something to be happy about.”

Conservative sectors are calling for Al Azhar University professors to contain “the maxed out frenzy” that is the veil debate. Al Azhar is one of the greatest and oldest Islamic institutes of the world. Its dean, the Grand Imam Ahmad El Tayeb, was rumored to have resigned yesterday because of the “institution’s inability or late rebuttals” over the veil conundrum.

These speculations have been shot down by El Tayeb’s spokesperson, who said constant attempts to belittle Al Azhar will fail and Imam El Tayeb is doing the best he can to serve Islam and Egypt. Egyptian Independent News channel CBC held a debate yesterday featuring Islam Behery, Azhar Scholar Osama El Azhary and Yemeni Islamic preacher Alhabib Ali Al Jafry, lasting nearly three hours.

The topic of the debate was “the general understanding of contemporary scholars of Islam.” Behery claims most if not all Islamic scholars including Al Bukhary are largely mistaken in the understanding and interpretation of a wide array of topics regarding Islam, which supposedly “brought religion to be misunderstood by non-Muslims and hence feared and associated with terrorism.”

The comment that was met by the furious reactions of the Azhar sheikhs, including Egypt’s former grand mufti Ali Gomaa, who called Behery “ignorant, arrogant and ill-mannered.”. Close monitoring of social media in Egypt shows a great division in comments following the episode. However, most TV channels and news websites opted to take Al Azhary’s side, out of a fear of associating the liberal opinions being associated with current Egyptian President Abdul Fattah El Sisi, who many on social media are calling for him to intercept.