On her way home one night in June, Sherif Atef Abu Hamza’s mother was pulled out of her taxi by a group of angry pedestrians, who physically and verbally assaulted her in the traffic of Tahrir Street.
“Get out of here,” the mob yelled. “The last thing the country needs are crooks like you,” they said, referring to her niqab.
Abu Hamza, a TV host on the Amgad religious channel, recounts that no one intervened as they watched a 55-year-old woman being assaulted in the middle of the street.
This, he says, is one of many recent stories of assaults on women wearing niqab and men sporting beards.
He recalls a conversation with a friend who shaved his beard in order to get to work. “He said people in his neighborhood attack bearded men and shave their beards off with pocket knives … he just wants to live in the shadows.”
“I have enough of these stories to fill an entire book,” Abu Hamza adds.
As anger began mounting this year toward the rule of deposed President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood group from which he hails, so did negative sentiment toward anyone who looks as if they belong to an Islamist current.
This sentiment arguably escalated after the birth of the Tamarod campaign, which gained a lot of momentum in the days leading up to June 30, when mass protests broke out against Morsi’s government. Tamarod began by collecting mass signatures to demand Morsi’s ouster.
Mai Mohie al-Deen, who wears the niqab, says verbal and physical assaults increased “because that day was associated with the end of Islamists.”
She was in the car with her husband in Alexandria when a truck pulled up next to them and the driver called out at her husband, “Sheikh, Sheikh!” When her husband turned toward him, the driver yelled “June 30!” and gestured at his neck to simulate slaughtering.
Mohie al-Deen says people have become so bold with their harassment that she is scared to walk in the street.
Different groups have fallen victim to this kind of harassment at different times. In a deeply polarized Egypt where liberals have been branded infidels and Islamists are dubbed sheep, Copts have been shunned in Upper Egypt while bearded men harassed in the streets of Cairo.
Said Sadek, a political sociologist, says this kind of hostility had always existed but on a smaller scale. He cites cases of discrimination against Copts or veiled women dating back to before 2011: “This kind of discrimination was subtle, now it’s just more developed and upfront.”
He explains that violence against Copts, women who do not cover their hair, and by the same token bearded men and women who wear the niqab, is particularly common when there is a “state of lawlessness.”
“Everyone is against everyone else,” he says.
Sadek warns that although this kind of animosity is linked to the current political situation, it may drag on and with time become deeply rooted in society.
Before the January 25 uprising in 2011, people like Mohie al-Deen were marginalized as a result of fear mongering by the Hosni Mubarak regime. It was only with the rise of Islamist political parties that they came out of the margins, albeit in a negative light.
Sara Soliman says that during Morsi’s brief time in power she felt more secure practicing religious freedom under the rule of an “Islamist figure.” She became more comfortable going out in her niqab.
This quickly changed as more and more people became disgruntled with Islamist rule. Soliman says she soon became accustomed to fending off dirty looks and frowns almost on a daily basis, but that this escalated to verbal assaults. She recalls several instances where people would look at her and curse Morsi, and says that she and her husband — who sports a beard — suffered more harassment after the Tamarod campaign began.
“People are always honking their horns at us and cutting us off when we’re driving,” she says. “This has become the norm.”
Soliman believes that harassment stems from ignorance: “People just believe what they hear.”
She blames the media for portraying Islamists inaccurately and in a negative light, adding that this is a “very strong weapon used by any fascist regime to propagate its own ideologies.” She laments the resurgence of negative and derogatory terms such as “terrorists or sheep.”
Soliman had hoped the new Islamic channels that have appeared recently would rectify this image, but alas, she says, they are fanatics who add fuel to the fire.
After Morsi and his regime were overthrown on July 3, several measures were taken to quickly vilify the Brotherhood. As well as portraying its members and supporters as terrorists, various satellite channels were quick to add logos to their screens describing the June 30 uprising as a fight against terrorism.
Terms thrown around by the media need to be clarified, Soliman says.
“What does ‘Salafi’ really mean?” is one of the questions she believes the media needs to address. “If following the Sunna makes me Salafi, then doesn’t that make most people Salafis?” she wonders.
“Neighbors have to ask each other, who are you and who am I?” Soliman says, urging anyone who is a “true reformist” to think about the terms they are using. “People don’t want to see us or get to know us. They just think they need to get rid of us instead of facing the fact that I am a person who has rights and you have to deal with me.”
Sadek echoes Soliman’s sentiment, describing a pattern of “demonizing the other” in the media, whether the other is Islamists, liberals, or Copts. This demonization has leaked to the streets, he says.
Nermine Zaki Taher, who wears niqab, and her husband say they have also started facing constant harassment. She recounts someone warning him to shave off his beard, and others pointing at her and yelling “this is the kind of shit the Brotherhood brought us.”
Taher says a distinction needs to be made between “regular Muslims and a regime that needs to be overthrown,” just as Soliman highlights the need to make important distinctions between “a terrorist and a practicing Muslim, a Brotherhood member who simply follows their ideology and a Brotherhood member out to overthrow governments.”
“I remember when the Muslim Brotherhood took over and everyone was panicking over imposing dress codes,” Taher says. “I felt for them because no one should force you to dress a certain way. Sadly, these are the very same people who attack me for the way I dress.”
For Abu Hamza, the real battle lies in “removing the hate toward people like my mother from other people’s hearts, and planting love for religion. This is the only way to get back my mother’s rights.”