Egypt’s Faceless Candidates

The first free elections in the history of Egypt are taking place, and among the candidates are thirty women who wear the niqab – the religious veil that conceals the entire body including the face. Niqabi women campaigning for office can seem a paradoxically feminist decision, despite the fact that some in Egypt have accused them of being puppets.

Fatma is a munaqaba, running as an independent candidate for a parliamentary seat from Cairo. Running for public office “is twice a challenge,” she says. “On one side, the liberals actively fight my presence and, on the other side, the salafis want me to go back home because they think that a woman should not be involved in politics”.

Fatma has no support whatsoever from any political party. Despite the heaviness of her outfit – it weighs more than three kilograms – she moves with agility.

As she canvasses for support on the streets of the city, she frequently encounters conservative citizens who strongly disapprove of her candidacy and tell her she should return to her home. “Egypt is like a bird,” she tells them, “It cannot fly if it does not use both its wings, men and women.” Sometimes, Fatma says, they call her anonymously on her cell phone, demanding that she withdraws from the election. But she says she is determined to continue her effort.

To those who think that she should take the veil off her face in order to be a candidate, she says that there is no contradiction between her niqab and the job of a parliamentarian. “The way my face looks has no importance at all. There is no law that forbids a munaqaba from participating in the elections. What really matters is what I will do once I am elected”.

When she hears negative comments about her outfit while she is touring, she does not hesitate to answer her aggressors: “Aren’t you suppose to lower your eyes down while talking to a woman?”

Sometimes discussions about her niqab get very heated, when she is canvassing neighborhoods like Doqqi or Imbaba, in which case she will say: “I can take the veil off my face if it’s about a security matter, but I won’t do it just to win a seat in the parliament, for me it’s a principle.”

Fatma used to be the head of the medical department of the Agouza schools district. She is now 60 years old and retired. She thinks that her participation in the elections is one of the most challenging episodes in her life. “For years and years we have let people who have never had any desire in working for public interest occupy all the political space,” she says. “But now it is time to act.”

Despite her strong religious beliefs, she chose not to join any of the religious political parties. For her, all the parties that were created after the revolution lack maturity and experience. Because of the lack of political support from any party, she had to sell a parcel of land she owned to finance her campaign.

The niqab is still very rare among the candidates; according to the electoral committee, only thirty women who wear the niqab are candidates in the whole country. Some of them are independent and some are running for ultraconservative salafi parties like Al Nour, Al Assala or Al Tanmiya wal Binaa.

For Mahmoud Saadeddine, columnist at Al Youm Al Sabie, the participation of munaqabat in the elections represents progress, as it means that religious movements are now allowed to participate openly in politics.

On the streets of Al Sahel district, Bahiya Mohamad, a 35 year-old mother who wears the niqab, is canvassing voters. She likes to introduce herself as “a simple citizen”. She grew up in a lower class neighborhood that has a big Coptic Christian community, and in spite of her niqab, she tries to project the image of a modern and moderate candidate.

She does not hesitate to canvass inside churches, and likes to underline the fact that her campaign signs and banners were made by two old friends, one a Copt and the other a Muslim.

Nevertheless her campaign is not going to be easy because of those who are vocal in expressing their mistrust in face-covered candidates. Once, a passer-by interrupted one of her street rallies to address the crowd: “How can I vote for a ghost? I have the right to know the face of the person who is going to represent me in the parliament, otherwise, how would I know if she’s present at the sessions at all?”

Newspaper columnist Farida Al Choubachi shares this opinion: “how is it possible that a deputy who can see my face and know so many details about my life denies me the right to see her face; how will I communicate with her?”, she asks.

Among the electoral ads and posters–whether in big cities or small towns, the candidates wearing the niqab are very rare. Most of the time, the picture of the candidate is replaced by a flower. Some of them choose to put their husband’s name on election material rather than their own. Some of them put their husband’s picture on the poster as well.

The vice president of the salafi party Al Nour, Yasser Al Borhami, had initially issued a fatwa (religious directive) forbidding women to take part in the elections, only to contradict himself later, after being attacked by liberals and secularists who reminded him that the law requires that every party have at least one woman on each of its electoral lists.

Despite reversing themselves and adding women to their lists, some salafi leaders have said if elected, female deputies will only be permitted to deal with women’s issues. They have also announced that women will be segregated from men in the parliament. These statements have triggered criticisms and jokes on the internet, some suggesting that Egyptians will be the first people on earth to vote for ghosts. Others wonder if the candidates with niqabs will actually attend the parliamentary sessions or send flowers in place of themselves.

Attempting to tamp down the sarcasm, Al Nour’s party spokesman recently declared that 60% of the party’s female candidates do not wear the niqab, adding that “it is not our party who refuses to post their pictures, this is the candidates’ personal preference.” On the party’s Facebook page, some adherents accused “liberals and secularists” of having photoshopped the party’s posters to replace women candidates’ names with those of their husbands, as a way of ridiculing them.

For some political activists, like Ahmed Seif, the fact that the salafis are accepting the rules of the game by adding women candidates to their electoral lists represents progress, because it indicates that they are getting ready to accept the rules of democracy.

On the other hand some, like Nihad Aboul Qomsane, director of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, believe that Al Nour only includes women on its list to advance the party’s goals. “Are we supposed to accept that women be used as puppets like this?” she asks.

Mohamed Salem, elections reporter for the daily Al Shourouk Al Gadid shares this opinion, pointing out that womens’ names always appear in the last position on the salafis’ lists.

“Women’s presence on their lists is only a tactical choice, in order to comply with the law. It is another way for these religious parties to gain more seats in the parliament. And the proof is that none of the women candidates are invited to make speeches during their electoral rallies, or occasionally a very marginal and minor speech.”

For Tareq, a 30 year-old computer engineer, “the niqab is not just a way of getting dressed, it is an ideology. The fact that we have women with niqabs participating in the elections is something that worries me. It means that Egypt which has always been moderate is changing. Also, let’s not forget about the 13 million Egyptian Copts who certainly reject this ideology.”

However, there are other citizens who are not bothered by candidates who wear the niqab. They think that this outfit is only relevant to personal choice, like Atef, a 60 year-old engineer who says: “There are many Egyptian women who wear the niqab in everyday life; the parliament should reflect this reality”.

For Karima, a 25 year-old house maid who wears the niqab, the time has come to stop stigmatizing the munaqaba. Women who wear the niqab do all kinds of professions, she says, and they should not be confined in ghettos but allowed to participate in political life.

Dina Darwich