CAIRO — For most of her life, Jehad Meshref covered her long black hair with a veil.
Now, disappointed by a failed revolution, she has cast it off, tired, she says, of fulfilling other people’s ideas of what a “good Egyptian girl” should look like. “We in Egypt were trying to change a lot of things these last two or three years,” she said, explaining her decision to stop veiling two months ago. “We tried to change politics, culture, our whole country,” said Meshref, 23. “It made me think I should start by changing myself.”
Across Egypt, women are increasingly challenging the tradition of veiling their hair. For some, it means switching from the niqab — or a nearly full face covering — to a hijab, or veil that only covers the hair and usually most of the neck. For others, it means going bare-headed for the first time in their lives.
“It is a trend, there is a wave of my friends doing it now,” said Layla Khalil, a 26-year-old student in Alexandria, who switched her niqab for a hijab just this month. “It is about freedom to veil how you want without people judging you as a good or a bad Egyptian girl.”
The new trend comes four months after the Egyptian military ousted the elected government of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Emboldened by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political power, Islamists increasingly harassed women in the street who didn’t have their hair covered, trying to shame them into adopting a more conservative style of dress. It was a physical manifestation of the ideas enshrined in the constitution adopted by the Brotherhood, which severely curtailed women’s rights, limiting their ability to inherit property, to earn equal pay and to make decisions independently of male family members.
“During the revolution women were very vocal and they were at the forefront. Suddenly they lost their rights, were not represented in the Muslim Brotherhood constitution and were being pressured to adopt, not just a physical hijab, but in many ways a social hijab, an economic hijab, an enforcement of traditional limitations on them in every way,” said Hibaaq Osman, founder of El Karama, an Egyptian organization for women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa.
“My problem is not the hijab or niqab, it is the right of a woman to do whatever she wants. If she wants to do it she should, and if she doesn’t she shouldn’t be forced to,” said Hibaaq. “The bottom line is that it is a woman’s choice.”
For Meshref, it never was. “I starting wearing a hijab when I was 7 years old, the niqab from 14 to 20 and then switched back to the hijab until just two months ago,” she said, just a few days shy of her 24th birthday. “My family thought I was too liberal; they thought I talked to boys and was too outspoken.”
“My parents forced me to veil, and I was so angry at them for taking my freedom to choose away,” she said. Now she has new worries: “Suddenly I have to think about my hair all the time. I have to brush it, and tie and it and use products. It’s so much new to think about.”
The implications have been dire. Meshref was forced to leave home and no longer sees her father. She has to maintain two Facebook accounts — one for her family and childhood friends which shows her veiled, and the other for new, or “understanding,” friends, which shows her new life.
“For me, not wearing the veil, I feel like myself for the first time in my life. It should be every women’s right to make this decision for herself. And once every woman has that right, and the men respect her for it, then we will really be in a new Egypt ready for new revolutions and change,” she said.
Meshref said that over the past six months, she had met over a dozen other women who have recently removed their veils. Of the more than dozen women contacted by BuzzFeed for this story, each spoke of “countless” friends who removed the hijab or niqab in recent months.