Wearing a veil is nothing out of the ordinary in Cairo, as many Muslim women wear the “hijab,” a scarf that covers the hair. The niqab, meanwhile, is worn by fewer women and covers the wearer’s head and face completely, except for an oblong slit at the eyes (think Zorro mask meets bridal veil.) Many women who wear the niqab also wear gloves, leaving virtually none of their skin exposed.
The niqab has caused controversy in Egypt in recent years, with its growing popularity among Egyptian women of all social classes increasingly seen by many in the secular government as a sign of a grassroots resurgence of more conservative strains of Islam. Egyptian courts have ruled that the wearing of the niqab is not specified as a duty in Islam, and therefore public institutions have a right to ban it. Many private institutions have banned the niqab as well, including the American University in Cairo.
Theological reasons for wearing the niqab in Islam are complex and numerous. The increasing popularity of the niqab and other more conservative forms of women’s dress may also reflect a backlash against the Western conceptualization of feminism and the objectification of women’s bodies in both Arabic and Western pop cultures.
The niqab can also be worn for more practical reasons. In Egypt, men vastly outnumber women in nearly every public setting, and even the most modestly dressed woman on the street is not immune to the incessant hissing, catcalls and sexual comments from men.
Kerry sums up her experience:
I don't think so.
The niqab just wasn’t me. In my first semester I had gotten so used to my role as a Western student in Cairo, in filling that piece in the intricate puzzle that is Egyptian society and in all that came with it — from the hissing and comments to the assumptions that I spoke only English — that I just couldn’t pull off such a drastic role change. I only lasted three hours in the niqab before I opted to take it off and continue exploring the market as my normal, Western self.
To wear such a covering, to present oneself in such a way, takes an incredible amount of inner conviction, which I lack.