EGYPT: Bagheaded Broadcasters celebrate freedom FROM democracy

Prior to the Arab ‘Spring’ the takeover of the Egyptian government by radical Islamists, potential employers turned down Heba Seraq-Eddin, she says, because of her full-face veil, the niqab, the black fabric that covers her whole face, except for the eyes. Then she came across an ad for a new TV channel called Maria, run exclusively by niqab-clad women. She was hired right away.

Washington Examiner  The only visible female face in the Cairo-based studio of a new Islamic TV channel for women is that of a puppet. The human stars are all veiled from head to toe, with only their eyes showing.

Maria TV is run primarily by women. They operate cameras, present shows and interview female guests ranging from doctors to students of Islamic theology. But they cannot show their faces during the broadcasts, and no men are allowed on air during the female programming, not even for phone-ins. Shrouded in long flowing black robes and scarves known as niqabs, with black gloves to match — the women are distinguishable only by their voices and the slits for their eyes.

The channel, which was launched on Saturday to coincide with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, is the brainchild of Ahmed Abdallah as part of a broader effort to expand his religious pan-Arab satellite station Ummah TV.

The shows range from beauty programs where presenters simply discuss make-up tricks without actually showing any faces to shows about medicine and marriage. The puppet is used in a satirical show that pokes fun at major news stories.


That effort mirrors the cultural changes under way in Egypt since conservative Muslims rose to power after Hosni Mubarak’s secular regime was ousted during last year’s revolution. Radical Islamists had been heavily repressed for decades, with hundreds jailed as opposition figures.

Ummah TV was raided multiple times by Mubarak’s security forces and financial troubles forced it to shut down in 2008. Abu Islam himself was detained at least four times, the longest being 22 days.

The station relaunched last year while the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafis emerged as the most influential political force in post-Mubarak Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi became Egypt’s first freely elected president, although the military, which assumed power in the transition, has tried to curb his powers along with the Islamist influence.

Conservative Islam and its most visible hallmark, the niqab, appear to be on the rise on Egypt’s cultural scene as well, and the launch of Maria TV is an attempt to cater to that growing segment of society. A decade ago, the niqab was rarely seen in Egypt and it remains a minority fashion.  Still, it has become normal in Egypt to see women wearing billowing black robes that cloak the body’s shape teaching at universities, working in offices, strolling along the Nile River or riding on motorcycles behind their husbands.

The white-haired, white-bearded Abdallah called Maria TV a victory for women who wear the niqab “after years of discrimination and injustice.” Many of these women are outspoken in defending their beliefs despite criticism that they are oppressed and cloistered by patriarchal traditions.

Ironically, Maria TV is named after the Coptic Christian slave given to the Prophet Muhammad, whom he married and freed. “I want to give children the ability to see these women and say ‘I want to be like that’… to create a generation that wants this and wants to be like this,” Abu Islam said. 

CNN  Others are worried that the rise of political Islam in Egypt will radicalize the society. They argue that a TV network that features only women with covered faces is a “U-turn” on the path of the so-called Arab uprising.

Alaa Abdallah says she avidly supports freedom of expression, but wouldn’t grant her critics the same leeway she demands. “I stand by freedom of expression as long as it isn’t hostile to Islam,” she says, arguing that “secular and liberal” channels are “destructive” in the way they are promoting ideas that would reshape society.

Abu Islam Abdallah, Alaa’s father and the owner of Al-Omma, believes he’s restoring the balance.  He describes as heretic the type of democratic system that allows women “to dress immodestly, work as dancers and even be members of Parliament.” That’s “pandemonium,” he says.