Hijabs, Burkinis, and Assumptions

A woman wears a Burkini in the south of France Credit: PA (via ITV)

A quick word to not judge by appearances, or to make assumptions about religious values.

Our family took a vacation to the Red Sea recently, at a hotel with a healthy mix of European speedos and Egyptian burkinis. It was quite the contrast.

From what we could tell, everyone behaved respectfully and enjoyed themselves.

While nowhere as revealing as a traditional bikini, the burkini is quite shapely. One night at dinner two Egyptians rose to dance to the folk band that came through. One was bareheaded, the other wore a hijab. Both knew well the techniques of belly dancing, and took no mind of the onlookers.

Was one a Christian, the other Muslim? If hijabed, why would she dance so? And while the burkini is an innovative development to help conservative Muslims enjoy the beach, is it conservative enough?

Within this discussion a recent article at CairoScene took my attention. A popular Egyptian comedienne decided to take off her hijab: 

Mostafa stated through her official Facebook page that she had been wearing the hijab since she was in primary school up until high school, and she believes that, in the beginning, it was internalised by her as ‘normal’ because it was just part of the way you’d look in the society and community she grew up in. However, when she really started asking herself if she was wearing it for herself, God, or people, she realised she was doing it out of pure conforming to society – “The concept of God wasn’t there,” she stated.

Mostafa started wearing it in different ways, like the fashionable turban-style hijab that has been more prevalent lately in Egypt and around the world for hijabis. But, that did not go well because she was once again attacked for wearing hijab “the wrong way,” though she asserts is something a lot of girls do in terms of their choice in clothing that is only coupled with a scarf over the head.

Her decision to take off the hijab came to her when she refused contradicting herself. She states that once she takes it off, which is what she is comfortable doing now, perhaps she will become convinced of the concept of the hijab on a personal level, and if that happens, it’ll be the right decision because it’ll come from within.

[Read on to discover the largely negative reactions to her post.]

As you encounter Muslim women in your everyday life, be careful not to make assumptions. Some wear the hijab because of their culture. Some wear it because of their husband or father. Some wear it because of piety. Some wear it as a political statement.

What they actually believe, and their personal character, may bear no relation whatsoever. Or maybe it does.

We were in church the other day and a hijabed lady came in with an uncovered friend. This is unusual in Egypt, but it doesn’t have to be a scandal.

My daughter asked, surprised, “Daddy, is she a Muslim?”

“I don’t know,” I told her. “Some Christians cover their heads in church.”

My daughter protested. It was clearly a Muslim hijab.

“You’ll have to ask her,” I said, smiling wryly.

My daughter didn’t like that answer either. It is sort of an awkward question, both in Egypt and America.

Unfortunately, it is much easier to make assumptions. What we need is conversation. When you next encounter that hijabed woman going about your daily life – yes, it is awkward – do your best to say hi.

Who knows what assumptions will be undone next.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Saudi Islands

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Perhaps the story is over, perhaps the judiciary will still have a role. But two contested islands in the Red Sea have been ceded by Egypt to Saudi Arabia, after parliament ratified the president’s decision.

It was an unpopular vote; proponents insist it was the right one.

At issue is original ownership. Egypt has long administered the islands, but were they originally Saudi? Both sides have produced maps, documents, and other evidence to support their case.

And in the background is the role of Saudi Arabia in supporting Egypt. The president first announced the deal in conjunction with a massive Saudi aid and investment program. Many felt he ‘sold’ Egyptian land.

The Administrative Court sought to block the transfer, but parliament acted on its believed constitutional prerogative. The Constitutional Court has not yet spoken—it may or may not. If originally Saudi only parliament is necessary to ratify a foreign agreement. If originally Egyptian a national referendum is necessary.

God, sort out the complications. The islands are unpopulated, but strategic. And little is more valuable in Egyptian imagination than land.

If the vote to cede was genuine, then bless the courageous lawmakers for standing against the popular will. It is right to give back what belongs to another.

But opponents say the vote was manipulated by government pressure. If so then bless the courageous lawmakers for calling it out. It is right to resist machinations of power.

But was the vote right, God? You know. Bless Egypt whether yes or no, but bless her differently. Through rebuke or commendation, guide her to the right and good.

All land is yours, God. All souls belong to you. All peoples reflect your handiwork.

Determine the exact lines of the places you would have them. Your greater story is not yet over. Within it is Egypt, and may all end well.




Friday Prayers for Egypt: Red Sea Verdict

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The court has spoken, and the land is Egyptian. Perhaps.

Months ago the president and the Saudi king concluded an agreement that included return of sovereignty over two small islands in the Red Sea. Opponents called it an illegal transfer, as Egyptians died in war defending their home soil.

This week the High Administrative Court sided with opponents. The Supreme Constitutional Court may yet have a say, but the immediate question is parliament.

The speaker says they will proceed with discussion and vote anyway, with many backing the president. Other members say this is would be a violation. Another legal dispute may yet be pending.

Several rejoiced, others groaned, and some fear. What does it mean when branches of government are at odds with themselves? Normal balance of power in some systems, in Egypt discord can be threatening.

God, resolve and normalize. Settle the issue of ownership, and buttress the role of each branch.

Let there be confidence in the judiciary. Let there be representation in the parliament. Let there be leadership in the executive.

Together, and in conflict, help them know and serve their land.





Friday Prayers for Egypt: Demonstration Denied

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Discontent with the Red Sea islands has not been dissipated. But it has been kept off the streets.

For good or for ill, God. Egypt can ill afford another protest movement, unless she needs it altogether.

Egypt’s greater good can be debated, but it should include a right to protest.

And as 30% of the country believes the islands are Egyptian, help the nation deal with the aftermath of demonstrations denied.

Courage, God, for those who insist on protesting. Help them weigh well the cost of conviction, and judge the potential of redemptive sacrifice.

Determination, God, for those who defend the detainees. Help them divide between the true and the troublemaker, and may all receive a faithful due process.

Wisdom, God, for the members of parliament. Help them balance responsibility to both claim and constituent, and cast a vote of informed conscience.

For the people, God, grant awareness, ability, and agency. For the process, trust, transparency, and truth.

Bless the government with discernment and professional administration.

Bless the nation with peace.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Reuters 25

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Ninety million Egyptians have a name. With truth and courage, may they state them freely.

For much can be hidden without it, God. The name of the Italian researcher is known, and have mercy on him. But he was killed by the anonymous, as anonymous others point to a culprit.

Reuters will protect these sources, as good journalism must do. But they ask readers to trust them, as others call false.

Judge between them, God, and hold the guilty accountable. But make Egypt a place where none will ever need to hide their name. Let all be transparent. Let all be true.

For on the 25th, some will rally publicly while others wear a mask. In continuation of protests over the designation of Red Sea islands as Saudi territory, thousands may again descend to the streets.

They are unlikely to have authorization to do so. God, give wisdom to the government, to permit, forbid, or restrict. May no blood be shed. May all act honorably.

And give grace to Egypt, to meet these challenges righteously. Correct. Reprove. Transform. Redeem.

Let all be done before the public eye. Let the name of Egypt merit respect. So too for each of the ninety million.




Friday Prayers for Egypt: Two Islands

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Uninhabited but geo-strategic, Egyptian blood was spilled to defend Tiran and Sanafir at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. Thankfully, no blood was spilled defending them yesterday.

Right or wrong, thousands took to the streets, troubled by a government decision to recognize Saudi Arabian sovereignty over the islands. As the king arrived to sign multi-billion dollar aid and investment agreements, the decision bore the appearances of a sale.

The government released official documents to demonstrate historic Saudi ownership in a belated attempt at damage control. The government also long presided over popular understanding that they belonged to Egypt.

But the anger is hard to measure. Is it nationalism or revolution? Is it single issue outrage or pent up frustration? Is it sincere love of land or long awaited excuse?

Protests were prevented at many locations throughout the country, but permitted downtown. There were arrests, but no deaths. A follow up is scheduled for April 25, Sinai Liberation Day.

Is it state prescience to allow opposition to vent and permit a degree of protesting rights? Or is it state impotence to shut down the street completely?

God, there is much to ask of you. These two islands threaten to shift the equation, for good or ill.

Determine the border. Let public discussion turn on the truth of the matter, encompassing all legal and moral claims.

Establish transparency. Let government and society nurture openness, reforming policies for greater public trust and accountability.

Cultivate civic duty. Let rights and responsibilities seep into public practice, shaping both governance and protest after a long emphasis on stability.

Grant discernment. Let authorities respond rightly to international realities and public mood, coalescing with protesters seeking right outcomes through legitimate means.

God, define the above consistent with overall justice, redeeming Egypt from all errors contemporary and historic. Create a society where righteousness will rejoice and people will prosper.

Let these islands be an opportunity, God. Guide Egypt accordingly.