Egypt's revealing debate

With the Muslim Brotherhood government in charge, head scarves are back on TV

A revealing debate


Head scarves have returned to mainstream Egyptian life for the first time in 50 years.

The Arab Spring may have deposed dictators and ushered in free and fair elections, but increasingly, women in the Arab world worry the uprising’s link to fundamentalist Islam will render their new-found freedoms irrelevant, particularly in Egypt. This month, its Muslim Brotherhood government made history when a female newscaster, Fatma Nabil, appeared on state-run TV in an Islamic head scarf for the first time in 50 years—to some, another sign of Egypt’s steady shift to conservative Islam.

Women were barred from delivering news wearing a hijab during Hosni Mubarak’s reign. But the government of new President Mohamed Morsi—whose wife, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, wears a head covering that flows past her waist—has reversed that ban. Some welcome the move: why shouldn’t Muslim women be permitted to do their jobs and uphold their beliefs at the same time? Others are not so enthused. Sally Zohney, a member of the women’s rights movement Baheya Ya Masr, fears a growing faction of TV viewers will “believe this is how a woman should look like in order to be respectful or modest.” She adds, “This is what is scary. I’m against discrimination completely, but that does not mean society should start harassing non-veiled girls.”

And so debates over Nabil and Mahmoud, Morsi’s wife, have become symbolic of the conservative country’s deeper divisions. Earlier, Mahmoud made waves by rejecting the honorific “first lady”; she prefers “Umm Ahmed,” which means mother of Ahmed, her eldest son. Her traditional, pious attire—a far cry from the smart suits and designer heels favoured by Egypt’s former first ladies—spurred heated debates in media and on the Internet. Until now, Egypt’s elite and Morsi’s predecessors spurned Islamist attire; flight attendants for EgyptAir were grounded if they dared wear the head scarf.

Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes the government’s reversal on the hijab is a good thing. “It’s hard for Western audiences to understand that women can choose to wear the head scarf,” she says. “In a country like Egypt where it was discouraged among elites, they wore it as a sign of opposition. Now in a much more freewheeling system, the women want to choose to wear it.” But she doesn’t deny the new regime’s sketchy stance on women’s rights, either. “Numerous Muslim Brotherhood officials are on record saying they want to review Egyptian family law,” because it is not in step with sharia law, she says. “There’s this feeling that an activist and aggressive Islam has been empowered by the revolution. And women are nervous about it.”