The wearing of the headscarf is not only a controversial issue in the West. A number of women television presenters in Egypt have been banned from the screens of the public broadcaster because of their decision to wear the hijab. Nelly Youssouf reports
Dr. Hussein Kamel Bahaa Eddine, the Egyptian Minister of Education, recently expressed his displeasure at the growing number of veiled students. The issue came to his attention during a visit to educational facilities in the administrative district of Alexandria. He subsequently demanded that a study on "the phenomenon of the growth in the wearing of veils by Muslim students" be urgently set up. He also called for decisive measures to combat this phenomenon.
This has led to a furious reaction on the part of various nongovernmental organizations and institutions. They described the position of the minister as typical for his government. He openly expresses what has until now been debated in whispers out of the fear of veil use spreading among young and old Muslims, particularly girls in schools and universities, and even among many women working in governmental and administrative offices.
The Egyptian state fears the influence of religious fanatics
The fear is that the public spread of Islamic symbols could play into the hands of religious fanatics, who want to see the Sharia maintained in all spheres of life.
A member of government, who did not wish to be named, gave assurances in an interview that the Egyptian government had no plans to ban Muslim women from wearing the veil. On the contrary, it respects their decision and regards it as a personal matter for every woman. Nevertheless, he actually strengthened the impression that the issue is seen as a threat, currently being manifested in the proliferation of women wearing veils.
There is a fear of the spread of religious tendencies and the attempt by Islamic groups to control society. An additional cause for worry is that the USA has classified Egyptian society as being rigid and undemocratic. The source confirmed that the views of the Minister of Education reflect the fears of the government, particularly in light of the fact that the USA pays millions of dollars to support Egyptian educational projects.
No veils for television presenters
The issue of the veil has been vehemently discussed in public and there is a consensus that the problem has been aggravated by a particular recent decision. A group of Egyptian television presenters has been banned from work after they appeared before the camera wearing headscarves. In the meantime, some of them have filed a complaint against the state broadcaster.
The most well-known of these women, Maha Midhat, began her profession over ten years ago at Channel Two and not long ago decided to wear a headscarf. As a result, she was not allowed to appear on screen. Instead, she has been assigned to read lines off screen, thereby being audible, but invisible.
Midhat has submitted the matter to court and hopes that the judge will help her get her job back. She says there is nothing in her contract that prohibits her from wearing a headscarf while at work.
The conflict between Maha Midhat and Egyptian television has further escalated after she had an intense fight with Zaynab Swidan, the director of the broadcasting corporation. Maha Midhat has turned to Minister of Information Safwat Sharif for support, but her plea has yet to reach the minister. She has also filed a complaint with the Egyptian cabinet.
Banned from the screen
The presenter Hala al-Maliki worked at a regional station for Egyptian television and, together with a number of her women colleagues, was banned from presenting programs after having chosen to wear the headscarf.
She confirmed in an interview that she and both her colleagues Ghada at-Tawil and Maha Adil had lodged complaints against the broadcasting corporation. In addition, they complained to the corporation's arbitration committee. I
t decided that they should be allowed to return to work, as no grounds could be found for barring the presenters from appearing on screen. The wearing of the headscarf is not prohibited by law nor is it an impediment to performing their duties at work. Despite this, the station has not allowed them to return to work in front of the camera.
Other television presenters have accommodated themselves to the circumstances and accept work out of the camera's eye. Amal Subhi, for instance, says she understands the move to ban her from the screen is a result of her decision to take up the headscarf. Although she has since been prevented from presenting her program, she refuses to remove the garment.
Reacting with wise composure
Subhi stresses that the policy of Egyptian television is mistaken. She questions how it is that other Egyptian women are allowed to wear the headscarf at work, yet television presenters are not.
The presenter Dalia Khattab is convinced that she should be allowed to continue to work while wearing a headscarf. At the same time, she feels that women shouldn't raise the kind of fuss that some of the presenters are doing with their legal cases, but rather approach the issue with a measure of wise composure.
Dalia has had to accept a number of restrictions since she began to wear a headscarf. She had to undergo a voice test, although the English language station had previously praised her excellent pronunciation.
Other presenters have announced that they are looking for new positions. Some have gone to Arab private stations that allow them to present programs wearing a veil. Such is the case with Amal Saad, who used to work at one of the Egyptian state-run TV stations.
She tells how immediately after her decision to wear a headscarf she officially apologized to the station's directors and quit her position, as it was clear to her that the ensuing difficulties would not permit her to continue her work as a presenter. The matter would have been different if she had been a permanent staff member and not merely a contract employee. Then she would have supported her colleagues' court case.
A television presenter is not just a mannequin
Amal believes that this policy can be traced back to the Egyptian Ministry of Information. The fear is that Egypt could be negatively perceived in the West, as the media abroad serves as a forum for presenting a country's politics. She caustically comments that a presenter is not just a mannequin, to be dressed up at the whim of the broadcaster.
Fatima Fuad, director of a regional TV station, emphasized that it is the usual practice for the presenters not to wear headscarves. This is a norm that just can't be ignored. At the same time, she remarked that those working in television respect the personal decisions of the presenters, but cannot allow these women to appear before the camera on account of the stated TV norm.
Fatima Fuad assures that she has expressed her support for the presenters to the station's decision-makers. She suggested that these presenters be allowed to work in special slots featuring religious or family programs, as is practiced by some private broadcasters. The government side has announced that it is examining these suggestions.
Nelly Youssouf © Qantara.de 2004
Translation from German: John Bergeron