The darkness that engulfed the region … was described by the Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine as a black wave that had come from the Gulf and swept the region, shrouding women in black as the use of the Saudi-style abaya and niqab, previously unknown in countries like Egypt, began to spread. Dozens of Egypt’s beloved and famed actresses gave up low-cut dresses and big hairdos to don the niqab, with encouragement and alleged payment from rich Saudis. In 1985, a small minority of books published in Egypt were of a religious nature. By 1995, 85 percent of books on show at the Cairo book fair were religious.
In Lebanon, the black wave came from Tehran, as Iran began to export its revolution. The chador, the all-enveloping black cloth, spread in Shia villages and in the southern suburbs of Beirut. It had been previously worn only by deeply conservative women, mostly wives of clerics. Liquor shops were closed, music disappeared, the black flags of mourning for Imam Hussein, one of the most revered religious figures in Shia Islam, fluttered from lampposts, and the slogan “We are all Khomeini” was scribbled on the walls of posh Beirut shopping streets. The flags, the chador, the niqab, the sectarian hatred, and the threats of apostasy all shaped a new collective consciousness that is only now being challenged by the younger generation.
Burqa/niqab bans in Western countries are a crucial form of support for this challenge.
Eventually the forces of fanaticism will recede. The swaddled masses yearning to breathe free will breathe.