How The Sexist Politics Of Hair Plays Out In Egypt's Schools

“I’m not against hijab in principle; I myself wear it,' says one mother. 'But I refuse to have my daughter wear it against her will.”

Some schools in Egypt were accused of forcing students to wear headscarves
Some schools in Egypt were accused of forcing students to wear headscarves
Nada Gamal

CAIRO — The 2020 school year began with a few headlines about schools accused of forcing students to wear headscarves:

"Public row over Egypt school forcing child to wear hijab, Education Ministry investigates' or "Plea to education minister: Principal threatens child with suspension over rasta braids'

The news stories show that some teachers and school administrators pressure students to wear headscarves, although the veil is not mandated in school bylaws or any Education Ministry decree. In several recent incidents, the staff was motivated by a desire to cultivate a uniform appearance among students, using the veil as a way to try to bring in line teenage girls whose hairstyles or general appearance don't fit their prescribed views on what is "decent." With different schools applying different degrees of strictness, and administrators enforcing their own views of what is school appropriate, headscarves have come to be seen by some schools as a tool to solve a problem. In these stories, the girls, with the support of their families, pushed back.

Mada Masr spoke to Mai, a middle school student in Alexandria who did not want to name her school for fear of expulsion. Mai received her kindergarten and elementary education at a convent school. While girls at the old school had varying hairstyles, skin tones, and religions and spoke in different accents, the school codes were strictly adhered to — girls were required to observe good hygiene and respect teachers, support workers and other students. By the time Mai was ready to move on to the next stage of her education, her family had fallen into financial trouble and so she was transferred to a public school for gifted children. This is where her problems began, although she says they are not academic.

Most of the girls at Mai's current school wear headscarves, and those who don't are mostly Christian. The unveiled girls usually come to school with their hair in a bun. In that environment, Mai stands out with her short, curly hair which she wears loose most of the time. At first, Mai said, she didn't understand why the students and teachers at her new school looked at her funny, or why the other girls seemed to avoid her. When she started to prove herself academically and engage more in class, things started to change. Mai says her Arabic language teacher was surprised at her high score on a test, and, the following day, she asked her why doesn't wear a headscarf. "I don't want to at the moment," Mai answered, after which the teacher asked her if her father lived at home.

The teacher told her she and her father would both be held to account for her exposed hair on Judgement Day, Mai said. "If I loved my father, she said, I should start covering my hair for my own sake as well as to honor him and to please God. She added that the fact that my hair is curly should be even more reason to wear a headscarf, as it would hide that ugly hair that looks like a man's and make me prettier."

One day at morning assembly, Mai was called out by another teacher. "Put that mad hair of yours in a bun, Mai." She could not talk back to the teacher, so she just laughed along with her classmates. But the incident made it clear to her just how damaging the situation was, so she decided to start wearing a headscarf to avoid more harassment. Her family intervened, saying she was too young to wear a hijab.

"People at school tolerate me, but nobody thinks much of me," says Mai. "Three years and I haven't made any real friends. Three years of bullying because my hair is curly and I don't want to cover it." Mai says her teachers constantly contrast her academic achievements with what they describe as her lapsed religious duties, attributing the latter to her having gone to a convent school.

I don't hate my hair. But I do hate my school, including the people who work there.

Mai says the discrimination extends to formal events, such as participation in the morning assembly program. "The reason given was that ‘discipline" is required of any girl if she wants to take part — and to be honest, I don't know how they define discipline. I go to school in my clean uniform, with white socks and black shoes on. I don't accessorize or wear any makeup because what they view as my ugly curly hair is all I need to look beautiful."

Mai hopes the worst of it is over, and that next year, when she moves onto high school, she will find herself in a more accepting situation.

"Despite all of this," she says, "I don't hate my hair. But I do hate my school, including the people who work there."

In the Sharqiya city of Belbis, a similar case led to a public confrontation between a student's parents and school administrators, ultimately requiring the Education Ministry to intervene.

Lamia Lotfy says her daughter Reem, a middle school student at Sharqiya's Belbis Public Language School, was threatened and bullied for refusing to wear a headscarf. Lotfy, a gender consultant and program coordinator at the New Woman Foundation, a rights group, told Mada Masr that the issue started a year earlier, when Reem was still in sixth grade at the same school. The girls received hints that, once they entered middle school, they would no longer be allowed to come to school without headscarves because they would be "all grown up," and were warned that refusal to adhere would result in disciplinary action.

Lotfy didn't want to act preemptively. But on Reem's very first day of middle school, the 13-year-old was instructed by teachers to wear a headscarf as part of her uniform. Lotfy was adamant in her refusal to make her daughter abide by the new requirement, and when the pressure on Reem continued, she decided to escalate.

In a public Facebook post she wrote about the issue in December, Lotfy quoted statements made to her daughter by three different teachers:

"Wear it to school and take it off when you leave."

"You simply won't be allowed onto the school premises without a headscarf."

"It's not our problem that your mom won't let you wear it. Work it out with her."

The Education Ministry put out a statement that hijab is not part of the school uniform — Photo: Elena Pleskevich

Reem's father lodged a complaint with the school administration. While he was assured that hijab was not a compulsory part of the official uniform, the school pushed back, this time targeting the mother. "Yes, we did tell the mother that a headcover was part of the uniform, but we never said hijab was. This is meant to protect the girls because this is a co-ed school," Vice Principal Manal Aboul Naga posted on Facebook. "What kind of mother reports someone for trying to protect their daughter," she added. In other posts by Aboul Naga, reviewed by Mada Masr, the vice principal claimed Lotfy was seeking fame through the controversy, and made other disparaging remarks about the parent.

Even before her own daughter's experience, Lotfy had been familiar with the practice of imposing headscarves on schoolgirls through her work at the New Woman Foundation. Lotfy "The model, decent girl is expected to dress modestly and wear a hijab to signal her pride in her religious identity, since hijab is what distinguishes her from a Christian girl." Most of the conflicts are resolved amicably once a legal guardian meets with the principal, Lotfy adds. In her particular case, the vice principal's attacks on Lotfy on social media prevented an easy resolution.

Does that include a girl's right to choose her own hairstyle?

Responding to the press and social media attention, the Education Ministry put out a statement that hijab is not part of the school uniform, that girls are free to choose whether or not to wear a headscarf and that school administrators and teachers have no say in the matter. Education Minister Tarek Shawky dismissed Reem's story as an "isolated incident."

The school district launched an investigation into the case. The New Woman Foundation released a letter titled "Citizenship for all in schools — no to imposing hijab" and invited signatories. The government's National Council for Women filed an official complaint, urging the Education Ministry to take the necessary steps to safeguard the rights of all Egyptian girls.

The question remains, does that include a girl's right to choose her own hairstyle?

Malak was just starting her first year of high school at the Wagih Baghdadi School in Giza. She went to school one day with pink highlights rasta-braided into her black hair. The principal of the school, where most girls are veiled, banned her from attending classes and made her stand in the hall as punishment instead, instructed her to wear hijab, and threatened to ban her from the premises if she came to school with the same hairstyle again.

Nagla Siddiq, Malak's mother, who sometimes works as a substitute teacher at the school, said there were early warning signs but she didn't think the issue would get that bad. Siddiq told Mada Masr that when she took Malak to pick up her uniform from school ahead of the start of the school year, some of the teachers told her to mind her daughter's appearance, and that although her daughter was wearing loose-fitting clothes, she would need to cover her hair.

"The code does stipulate that hair may not be dyed or accessorized in bright colors or obscure vision, but it was only sent to me by colleagues after Malak was bullied, humiliated, victimized and psychologically scarred," Siddiq told Mada Masr.

Siddiq says that after Malak's problem began, other unveiled girls at the school confided in her about the bullying they received from staff. Siddiq and the school principal both filed complaints with the school district.

Multiple hearings were held for 16-year-old Malak, both on her own and in the presence of her mother. Malak was told during one hearing: "Either cut it, dye it or cover it during school hours. We're not interested in forcing you to wear hijab."

"The way I see it, all three choices are effectively the same: hijab by force," Siddiq says. "I'm not against hijab in principle; I myself wear it. But I refuse to have my daughter wear it against her will."

The school district concluded that Malak was never forced to wear hijab. The school was only concerned with the inappropriate color of her hair, the district says. The student was asked to dye her hair back to its natural color. She told them that the dye job had cost LE500 and that she could not afford to change the color again, so the administration asked her to wear a headscarf just until her hair reverts back to its natural black color, according to the statement issued by the district. Malak goes to school with her hair in a bun, a compromise that has so far been tolerated by the administration.

Commenting on the issue of hairstyles, Rabab Abdel Salam Abaza, principal of Alexandria's Al-Shahida Om Sabir Girls' Middle School, told Mada Masr "Every girl should check herself in the mirror before heading out for school and make sure that her appearance is appropriate for the educational setting. And it falls to parents to guide their daughters in that regard." Dyed hair falls outside what's appropriate for Abaza, as do shoes that are not black in color. But "setting a code," Abaza adds, "and laying out what is appropriate for school does not amount to forcing non-hijabi girls to wear headscarves."

The veil is of course a non-issue for boys, but it is unclear whether school administrations practice similar patterns of enforcing a uniform appearance among male students. Mada Masr inquired at two Alexandrian all-boys school administrations and found that neither one has ever recorded a complaint, suspension or other disciplinary action against any boy for not wearing his uniform or for what teachers may have viewed as an inappropriate appearance or a violation of the dress code. "Boys have a different reaction from girls when their appearance is commented on," says a boys' high school teacher who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. "Of course there are boys who come to school with a completely inappropriate appearance, with unusual hairstyles or even in t-shirts and jeans like they're on a casual outing. But if a teacher comments on something like that, he could bring upon himself all kinds of insults. This is what happens at so many public schools, teachers get humiliated. So we don't speak out."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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