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The veil, the chair and the virtue police

The role of religion in defining the relationship between citizens and the state has for some time been mainly limited issues of personal status. Many Egyptians are religious, and yet the impact of religion on people's daily lives tends to be independent to a large degree of any kind of state interference.

Perhaps this is why, with the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafi-orinted Nour Party picking up more than half the seats in recent parliamentary elections, Cairo residents, and others across the country, are voicing their concern.

The FJP has said there will be no major changes in the relationship between society, the state and religion, and that there is nothing to worry about. However, some Nour Party candidates and Salafi politicians have been speaking as though the extremist Islamification of Egyptian society is just around the corner. Although the newly elected parliament has yet to make any laws, the statements of Salafis have had many moderate and secular Egyptians up in arms.

Mohamed Emara, a member of the Nour Party and its victorious candidate in the South Cairo constituency, declared on 3 December that stricter regulations would be applied to alcohol sales, bank lending, and beach attire.

The future MP noted in an interview with state-run daily Akhbar al-Youm that the phrase “civil state” is ambiguous. He added that the imposition of Islamic banking is the key to a flourishing Egyptian economy. The application of Islamic banking rules would only entail changing so-called "profit" structures, without fundamental changes to the conventional banking system now in place — except for a ban on investments in alcohol, gambling or anything else that is seen as forbidden by Islam.

"There is very little political awareness among the majority of Egyptians," claims Sanaa Abdel Rahman, a hairdresser who lives in a neighborhood around the pyramids. "When people voted for Salafi and Brotherhood candidates, they were supporting what they thought were religious elders and were unaware that these people would destroy their livelihood. Almost everyone in our neighborhood works in tourism, but they all voted for the Nour Party."

While bankers and tour guides spend sleepless nights over the financial implications of an Islamist state, women worry about being forced to cover their hair and stay out of restaurants and cafes where they would mix with men.

Perhaps the most controversial declarations have to do with the veil. A recent Nour Party advertisement claims that it would "never force women to wear the niqab," which covers the face as well as the hair. However, no mention is made of the headscarf, a fact which leaves open the possibility that the latter could be imposed by law. Other Salafi rulings have forbidden neck ties for men, as well as trousers for women, unless in the company of a husband, brothers or father.

“I will personally put up a big fight against any mandatory attire imposed by any political party,” says Heba Wahdan, an employee of media company Getty Images in Egypt. However, the young woman adds that if such attire becomes a must at some point, she will reluctantly wear it, because she does not wish to leave her country.

However, not everyone is as willing to comply. "If I have the chance to leave, I will leave,” says Nour al-Sanhoury, another female Cairo resident.

The recent formation of the self-proclaimed "virtue police" has done little to calm people's fears. Women in a beauty salon in Benha physically attacked the Salafi group for coming into the salon armed with bamboo sticks and demanding the women make changes in the store.

"None of these men have the right to tell us to wear the veil," says Samia Ramadan, a housekeeper from Sharkeya. "Wearing the veil is a woman's choice. If she is forced, the act is not accepted by Islam."

For more information on Salafi proclamations, Egypt Independent visited a prominent Salafi website. The site considers the use of make-up, perfume and accessories tantamount to adultery; make-up should consist solely of kohl and only allowed indoors, says the site.

“Well, that is based on Islamic thought,” says Sherine Tawfiq, a young working woman. According to her, a Hadith by the prophet Mohamed forbids women from wearing perfume outdoors.

“My job will stay the same. The only change is that women will put on a veil on their way out of my shop,” says Galal, a hair dresser. He believes that if night spots and events are banned from allowing the sexes to mix, parties and weddings will be held in private homes rather than at public venues.

Salafis call for separating men and women in burial places as well, while one Yemeni Salafi cleric proclaims that women should not sit on couches and chairs because they are Western inventions that allow women to relax and spread her legs, inviting demons to engage with them sexually.

"Salafi representatives on television focus too much on sex and sexual temptation, which gives Islam in Egypt a very bad name," says Hanna Ahmed, an interior decorator. "I wish their policies would focus more on honesty in business dealings and relationships, and the cleanliness of homes and streets — these are much more fundamentally Islamic values."

While many are dismayed by the stric Salafi rulings, the more politically savvy say they saw it coming. “Political Islam is a cover for social and sexual tension,” says Saed Sadek, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, who believes that Salafi politicians consider women an easy target. “After their sweeping success in the parliament, Islamists will start to tweak and alter divorce laws, custody and women rights,” adds the scholar.

“Covering women up is their victory, small as it is, and their way to stand out socially and politically,” explains Sadek. The professor explains that the example is clear in Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan and Algeria. “Religion is the food of the poor,” and that is why the voice of the Islamist is powerful among Egyptians, 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line," says the professor.

Rumors concerning the jizya, a mandatory tax imposed on religious minorities, have spread on Christian blogs recently.

More immediately, Sheikh Mahmoud Amer, a Salafi figure in Damanhour, stated that voting for a non-praying Muslim, a Christian, a liberal, a former NDP member or a secular candidate is religiously forbidden. Amer is also known for his religious ruling in 2010 legitimizing the execution of now presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei. At the time, Amer supported his ruling with the claim that ElBaradei’s statements incited a split among Egyptians, encouraging them to fight Mubarak, in contravention of Islam.

Ahmed Farid, board member of the Salafi Call in Alexandria, added that Islam doesn’t recognize liberalism or absolute freedom in all aspects of life: economic, political, social and sexual. Sheikh Hesham al-Naggar, Nour Party candidate in Sharqiya called for a fight against secularists.

“We will deter secularism like we daunted the crusaders,” the sheikh told the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper.

Personal diatribes are also popular within the Salafi community. In an interview with Al-Nahar channel, Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, a Nour Party candidate in Alexandria, proclaimed that Noble prize winner Naguib Mahfouz was an "author of prostitution and drugs" and that his writings "promoted sin and drug abuse."

The Salafi community has also encouraged the execution of prominent liberal journalist Ibrahim Eissa.

“There is a great deal of unrest in those people’s eyes and souls,” says Mervat Abdallah, a house-wife and a mother of two. She adds that watching a Salafi cleric or politician gives her palpitations and insomnia.

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