Veiled is beautiful, say Egypt's feminists and fashionistas

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The Independent Online

Every year, I try to pull together the various strands of my extensive Cairene family for a family portrait. These pictures have become a chronicle of many things - the birth and staggering growth of new generations, for one.

In the past few years, the most noticeable trend is the covering of the women in the family. Four years ago, one or two headscarves could be spotted in the crowd; today, only one or two women are without one.

The increasing number of women wearing the hijab has brought about a radical change in the image of the Egyptian woman. As young, urbane women increasingly take the veil, age-old associations between hijab and the traditional religious conservatism dissipate. "It's not a matter of old women getting veiled, just out of a habit," says Nesrine Samara, project manager at the new English-language magazine Jumanah, a fashion bible for veiled women due to launch this month. "It's not a matter of just covering up; it means a lot of other things." Ms Samara, a 27-year-old marketing executive, is a political science graduate of the American University of Cairo. Smartly dressed in camel boots, a long coat and a bright orange scarf, she resists the notion that being veiled is simply about being modest. Women are increasingly taking the veil as a way of identifying with the larger culture of Islam, she argues.

But it's not just a statement of identity, it's a fashion statement. One friend spent weeks scouring shops offering a dizzying array of brightly coloured, lavishly printed material to find a scarf that would perfectly match the dress she was wearing to her cousin's wedding. At a trendy café in Cairo's Zamalek district, well-dressed veiled women gossip while seated on plush couches over a late lunch or huddle over lattes, their laptops open on the tabletop. This is the dawn of the "new hijab". The trend, however, is fraught with contradictions. When it hits the stands, Jumanah will bump up against magazines such as the English-language glossy, Enigma. The cover of Enigma's December "Glamour Issue" bears a lusty picture of the Romanian designer Ramona Flip wearing a lacy black dress with a deep-plunging neckline.

Speaking of Egypt's pioneering feminists such as Hoda Shaarawi, Ceza Nabarawi and Nabawiya Moussa - who famously unveiled after a trip to the International Women's Suffrage Alliance congress in Rome in 1923 - Ms Samara notes: "The first thing they did was take off the veil, as a statement. It was political then, and for a long time, it was only the daring, the educated and the freedom-seekers who were not veiled."

Does the return of the veil imply a backward trend in Egyptian feminism? The question is a contentious one, but for progressive Muslim women like Ms Samara, the suggestion that the veil is somehow reactionary or oppressive is antediluvian. Putting on the veil has, in fact, become as bold a statement as taking it off once was.

"When you're veiled, it's not because you're a sex symbol, or because you're sexy, so you have to cover up," she says. "It's the contrary. It's something that tells you, you're a woman. You're not a figure. You have to be treated as an independent mind, something of bigger value than just wearing a short, tight skirt and showing off your legs. I see it as a privilege that Islam tries to tell a woman that you are more than a figure."

But Ms Samara and other marketing colleagues who had taken the veil found that it could be difficult to be both fashionable and veiled. The group saw a large market virtually untapped and founded Jumanah. The credo "Veiled is beautiful" is emblazoned on the front of the Winter 2004 issue. Inside the models are all covered up, but in the new fashionable hijab.

Rasha Saad, 33, who began wearing the veil three years ago, is pleased to find a magazine dedicated to wearing the veil with style. She notes that in the past few years local fashions have been more compatible with wearing the veil. There is a difference between attracting attention and just paying attention to one's appearance she says. "If you're wearing tight clothes, that's something different. But just trying to wear something that looks good, there's no problem in that."