Dalia Awad doesn't veil her hair or her feelings.
I’m the only non-veiled female in my family. Yes, I’m talking extended family – everyone from my mum to my second cousin (twice removed) has found peace with that extra piece of clothing. Most of them began donning the religious scarf when they were teenagers. When I was a teenager, the only scarf I wore was a keffiyeh (it was cool at the time, I promise) and I covered up only out of necessity (growing up in London, I had to be prepared for every kind of weather, all the time). But here I am in Cairo, and I’m the minority, not only within my family, but within the whole country. And for the whole country, my hair defines who I am, my exposed skin makes a statement and my choice of clothing makes me stand apart.
Now, this blog could easily turn into a tirade against sexual harassment, discrimination, the regime, the lack of awareness and the intolerance that runs rife, not only in Egypt, but in the Middle East as a whole. The mere fact that I’m discussing my appearance is something to be discussed. I could talk for hours on end about what the Islamic veil means, what it represents, why I’ve chosen to say no to it and even why I appreciate it. You see, the veil has been a point of discussion for as long as Islam has been alive. I could pull out Quranic verses to convince you of its utmost importance and I could pull out verses that prove that the whole tradition is a fabrication of the modern age. But what’s the point? The thing about growing up is you quickly realise that not everything needs a reason, that logic and emotion require equal attention (and disregard, at times) and, ultimately, that you will not – and should not – convince others of anything. Ever.
More often than not, humans are a product of their surroundings and circumstances. In other words, it’s the things that you can’t control that make you who you are. Though my mum and her sisters might think they chose to cover their hair, I know that it’s the place they grew up in, the schools they went to, the people they met and what they were taught that led them there. Though some of my dad’s many, many sisters go as far as to cover their faces with a full-blown niqab situation, I know that they’ve been conditioned to take that as the norm. It’s all they know, and they know it well. Moreover, they believe in it and that’s more than I can say about any choice I’ve ever made.
So yes, I am the odd one out. Yes, my life is a million miles away from that of my cousins, my aunts and even my mum. And yes, sometimes I can’t even recognise my own relatives at family gatherings. I think about how they deal with the heat, when the last time they felt the sun on their skin was and how they could be anywhere near a beach or a pool and not strip off and dive in. I wonder if their lives would have been different, if they could have met cuter husbands, if they’d enjoy a night at Tamarai or Amici and if they’re happy. I think about what they think about themselves, I think about what being veiled takes away from them and I think about what it gives them. And then I wonder what they think about me.
That’s where my pondering stops. Why? Because they’ve never questioned me and my choices. They’ve never pressured me or tried to sway my thoughts. They’ve never looked at me as the black brunette sheep; the loose cannon; the one that needs saving from herself. The women in my family have never judged me, analysed me or tried to get inside my head. A little extra material might have put us poles apart, but they’ve never tried to pull me to their side. They’ve never even tried to make it to my side to see what all the fuss is about – the middle ground is always enough. Instead, they borrow my lipsticks, compliment my outfits and talk to me about boys, trashy TV shows and intra-family scandals. People talk about feminism in abstract terms of ‘liberation’, ‘equality’ and ‘empowerment’ when, in reality, it’s far simpler than that. Feminism, for me, is looking past a woman’s choices and seeing her just as a woman. If she’s a woman full of gossip, make up tips and spoiler alerts, all the better.