"Women who wear hijab in Egypt just have a bad reputation." We were diving in and out of Cairo weekend traffic, heading towards a hotel by the pyramids for dinner, when the driver mindlessly blurted out this comment. I was the only one in the car wearing a hijab. What made this remark different from previous one-liners about my hijab is that it came from an upper-class, educated Arab. He was old-money, educated in the West and a self-proclaimed liberal. The type who wears authentic GAP clothing, swings Gucci totes and has inherited an exclusive country club membership from grandparents.
I started wearing the hijab 10 years ago, when I was 18, in my hometown, Ottawa, Canada. It was a scary yet exhilarating decision to make. I knew I would be making a proclamation to the rest of society that I was different. At a time when other kids were piercing and tattooing their body parts, I was choosing to become more religious in a faith that was misunderstood - even before September 11. I would be the second to wear a hijab in my family; my mother took the plunge in her late thirties. Even though I was born in Kuwait to Iraqi parents and spent my childhood in Abu Dhabi, by the time I was 14 my family was ready to call Canada home and I was growing up learning how to embrace Canadian values.
Nevertheless, my name was foreign, I spoke both Arabic and English at home and I stood out like a sore thumb in my Wasp-ish high school, where I was one of about five Arab teenagers. But I never felt resentment; I was proud of being different. By university, I was just another teenager trying to carve out an identity and looking into my heritage for answers. I read and talked to others about why they were Muslim. And soon, I felt as if I was actively following my faith; before, it had seemed as if I was only born into it. I wanted a way to express this choice outwardly and make it public and the hijab gave me this option.
I talked to women about why they wore it. They told me about their experiences as Muslims living in the West. I knew it was going to be a struggle, but one that I wanted to go through. My first hijab was a black hand-me-down from my mother. I wore it as a sign of rebellion, religiosity and deference. But I found it difficult from the outset. There was always the idiot on the bus who yelled "Terrorist!" at the top of his lungs, or the woman who disgustingly stared me down at the mall, or the old guy breathing "go back home" in the grocery line. It gets tiring always having to justify your actions. But, in my experience, where more enlightened classes mixed I was given a space to lead by example and an opportunity to express my abilities without condescending judgement. By the time I was 25, I was reading the news and reporting for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I was engaged with my community at large and I felt accepted.
I brought this attitude with me to Egypt in late 2006. What I was not ready for was the switch - while I blended in without harassment on the street, it was among Westernised liberal Egyptians that I experienced prejudice. Much like the old man in the shopping line, or the guy yelling on the bus, it did not matter to them what my accomplishments were. I was wearing a veil and it disgusted them. The first time I was hit with this was when I introduced myself to a famous Egyptian cartoonist. I wanted to look over his shoulder as he drew his latest sketch and tell him I enjoyed his work. Instead he looked me up and down and asked where I was from. When I answered "Canada", he asked if I wore the hijab there. When I answered yes, he pointed a finger at me and said, "Well, you are aware that this is how the servants dress". In a classist society such as Egypt, calling someone a maid is another way of saying that person is uneducated. He did not ask me my name, or what my story was. Instead, he felt he was totally within his rights to insult me, because of my scarf.
In a country where there exists a culture of shaming women into taking on the hijab to conform with local ideas of modesty, there is also a culture of shaming educated, upper-middle class hijabis. I was made to feel backward, brainwashed and a symbol of political Islam instead of a woman who had made a choice. Having come back to live and work in the Middle East, I have been forced to re-evaluate my identity. I knew I did not identify with many of the ways Egyptians practised their faith. I am a Muslim who was raised in the West, so I practise my faith differently. Equally, I do not identify with the way some of Egypt's elite define being Western. I respect non-conformity. Even though I have to field personal and often rude questions from so-called liberals here, I still feel it empowers me to have control over my body. And while it is not as exhilarating to wear it as when I was 18, I still like surprising people when they are unsure of what to make of me in a hijab.
I also now know life as a woman is not going to be that easy. We are judged no matter what we do. So if I am to be labelled, I am determined to define my category. And while the struggle I face because of my hijab can get very tiresome some days, I am just not ready to give it up. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for The Associated Press, based in Cairo.