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July 28, 2022 10:47 am

An Egyptian Woman’s Brutal Killing Sparks Renewed Hijab Debate

avatar by Hany Ghoraba


The Taba Border Crossing between Israel and Egypt. Photo: NYC2TLV via Wikimedia Commons.

Egyptians were shocked last month by the brutal stabbing murder of a college student, Naira Ashraf, in front of Mansoura University’s gates. The killer was a spurned suitor, who has since been sentenced to death.

In response, some Islamist clerics made little comment about the nature of the attack, or why a man would feel that murder is an acceptable reaction to rejection. Instead, they blamed the victim, arguing that Ashraf was killed because she didn’t wear a hijab. Islamists consider the hijab to be a requirement for Muslim women.

“The hijab […] aims to preserve [women’s] feminine nature,” read a 2017 statement from Egypt’s Al Azhar, the world’s most influential center on Sunni Islam.

Al Azhar’s former Islamic Studies dean, Mabrouk Atteya, reiterated that view in the wake of Ashraf’s murder. He called on women to wear heavy clothes and cover themselves to avoid getting killed or raped.

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“For a girl that goes out of her house, she must be veiled and dressed loosely, your life is precious to you, if you want to go out, wear pants and do not show your hair, fear for your life,” said Atteya.

After a backlash, Atteya said he was shutting down his social media accounts. But he was far from alone. Convicted terrorists, such as Gama’a Islamiyya’s leader Assem Abdel-Maged, also attacked the murder victim and her supporters.

The National Council for Egyptian Women filed a complaint against Atteya with Egypt’s attorney general.

“These words cannot be stated from a man of religion. What has been said is contempt for women and incitement to violence and murder against her, which is a crime punishable by law,” said council leader Maya Morsi.

“How can a man in general, besides being a religious man, make such statements on the crime that claimed the victim of a Mansoura University student?” wrote Egyptian politician and former MP Mohamed Abu Hamed. “It is a cover that encourages and justifies committing crimes in all its forms against women.”

Al Azhar didn’t condemn Atteya’s statements. Instead, it issued a statement saying that clerics should behave in a manner befitting Al Azhar clerics. It asked the public to distinguish between personal views of one of its clerics and the institution.

Recent Al Azhar pronouncements, however, show it hasn’t moved away from its 2017 declaration about the hijab.

Before this month’s El al-Adha celebrations, an Al Azhar affiliate issued a list of “prohibitions.” Among them: women should not go out during the holiday without wearing a hijab.

“The hijab is a matter of life and death for Al Azhar. It was never about the ‘piece of cloth’ that is worn on the heads of Egyptian women, but it is a political statement by Islamists,” Egyptian author and women’s rights advocate Sherin Helal told the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

According to a 2017 study, 60 percent of Egyptian men admitted having harassed a women or girl in their lives.

Such cases are increasing, which led the parliament to issue a law last year increasing criminal penalties to up to four years in prison. Fines were increased ten-fold.

Even before this latest controversy, there were signs more Egyptian girls and women were choosing to remove their hijabs.

More recently, Egyptian social media reaction to the Ashraf killing, and the Islamist response, prompted trending hashtags on why the hijab must be removed, and support for opposing Al Azhar.

For years, Al Azhar has cast hijab wearing as mandatory for Muslim women. But defying the company line, Al Azhar scholar Saad El Din al-Helali confirmed that there is nothing in the Koran to justify a hijab mandate. He cited examples of women who didn’t wear the hijab and made pilgrimages during the time of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

But Helali seems to be an outlier.

The hijab has become a symbol of Islamism in Egypt. Islamist websites promote slogans such as, “My Hijab is my virtue.” Some Muslim Brotherhood elements even tried to claim that “prices will stop increasing when women wear [the] hijab.”

Despite being ousted officially from power, Islamists still wield significant social influence. Ashraf’s murder, and the attempt to make it about her unveiled appearance, may be a turning point. But the odds of significant change are high.

“The Egyptian society is witnessing an intellectual movement, and moving towards a more progressive thought in face of the the outdated fatwas and lame religious discourse,” Helal said, “and in my opinion, this movement will not allow any forms of archaic religious discourse to prevail.”

Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) Senior Fellow Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, a political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of “Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.” and a regular contributor to the BBC. A version of this article was originally published by IPT.

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