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.”
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."