The Politics of the Veil 

Nermin Allam (Rutgers University)

The literature on contentious politics has not traditionally engaged with the politics of the veil in protest movements. In this paper, I investigate how shifts in opportunities influence women’s choices around veiling within the context of contention politics. Using the case of the 2011 Egyptian uprising, I show the different mechanisms that led to the choice to unveil among some women protestors. Specifically, I identify four pathways to unveiling: shifts in political opportunities; innovations in repertoires of contention; exposures to new networks; and opportunities within the family. I highlight how when regimes invoke a gendered morality discourse to discourage women’s political participation, they contribute to opening up such discourse for debate where women question some of its practices and vocabularies including the veil. The data for this project build upon original field research and interview data with women who removed their hijab during the 2011 Egyptian uprising. The article adds to the existing literature on gender, modesty and contentious politics by demonstrating the gendered effects of political opportunity structures on women’s choices. The analysis demonstrates how unveiling—similar to veiling—is a fluid symbol. The decision to embrace the hijab or remove it is contingent on women’s subjective experiences, as well as the historical discourses, political currents, and social attitudes in society.