In Selected Opinion

By Hany Ghoraba – IPT News –

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 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 woman.

While Islamists were forced from power in 2013, the response to Ashraf’s murder shows that their values still can dominate a significant portion of Egyptian culture. But there are signs that may be starting to change.

“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.

“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.

“Let your hair loose on your face and wear tight clothes and you will be hunted by those drooling men and they will kill you. If your life is valuable for you, go out wearing a Kuffah (A traditional basket used for carrying vegetables and objects) (wome) be a Kuffah .. those who are drooling and has no money will slaughter you,” 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.

“For the filthy, it is forbidden to criticize the obscene display of [Ashraf] , nor her mixing with boys anything other than the innocent, nor the pimping of her father, nor her mother’s bragging,” Abdel-Maged wrote from his home in Qatar.

“They just criticize the murderer (he is definitely a criminal) and praise the murdered,” Abdel-Maged continued. Because they want to spread obscenity and seduce the nation.”

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.

“Al Azhar proclaimed itself as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue,” wrote author Sahar El Garaa. “Going out without a veil is ‘prohibited.’ This is not a statement from the Ministry of Interior, nor a law, nor is it known: This is a guardianship on the society!! This is an intrusion on the civil state … and incitement to violence against the non-veiled!! We have become slave girls in the state of Al-Azhar!!”

“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 opposing Al Azhar.

Some shared photos of Egypt in the 1970s, when few women, including the wives and families of Al Azhar clerics, wore hijabs.

“Islamists use the veil as an imposition of their authority in their confrontation against the liberals and intellectuals,” said Helal.

For years, Al Azhar has cast hijab wearing as mandatory for Muslim women. A statement issued last month said that mandate is “on every sane adult Muslim woman, approved by the sources of Islamic legislation in the text of the Qur’an and the consensus of Muslim jurists.” It opposes any change “because it is contrary to what Muslims have agreed upon fifteen centuries ago.”

Defying the company line, Al Azhar scholar Saad El Din al-Helali confirmed that there is nothing in the Quran 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.

“There are no Quran verses that describe what parts of the women body to hide, we judge based on the social norms,” he said.

But Helali seems to be an outlier.

“Al Azhar enjoys a ‘special immunity’ to invoke Sharia rulings to justify views rooted in political Islam,” Helal, the Egyptian author, told the IPT.

“The most telling example of this is the reformation of social laws such as amending divorce laws, which has been obstructed by Al-Azhar for years,” she said.

“The fatwa authorities interfere in the enactment of social legislation, which goes against the principles of citizenship stipulated by the constitution,” she added.

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 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 recently 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.”


IPT Senior Fellow Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, 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.

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