These two women in Cairo are wearing the niqab, which is the source of a lot of controversy at the moment, with one of Egypt's religious leaders threatening to issue a fatwa to ban wearing it, saying that it's a tribal custom and not required by Islam.
I did not see many women in the niqab, though almost everyone wore headscarves. And it was unsettling because I found the headscarves charming -- I loved how bright the colors were, pink and purple and lime green, and how each girl tied it differently -- and I, viscerally, passionately, see the niqab as so wrong. But isn't not showing your hair just a few degrees away on the same scale from not showing your face at all (or your hands -- most of the veiled women I saw were also wearing gloves, unlike these women.) Or since we cover our boobs and butts and genitals, is it all relative, and cultural, and not for outsiders to criticize?
Still. I saw one girl, in the Alexandria library, running up the stairs between two of her friends. They wore headscarves; she was in full niqab, including gloves. She was maybe fifteen, judging by the age of her friends, thin, coltish, and full of energy, and weighing her down with all those heavy black garments just seemed cruel. What harm could she suffer if we saw her? What harm could seeing her do to us?
Both of our tour guides in Egypt were women and both discussed headscarves and niqabs. They admitted to hating the scarves in summer when it's hot, but prefer to wear them. "I feel safe when I wear it. No one looks at me."
Not being looked at. I understand the freedom of that; being looked at, and judged, and generally found wanting, caused me much grief in my youth.
But it has to be optional. Sometimes you want to be seen.