On Sunday, a female news anchor wore a headscarf for the first time on camera in Egyptian state television history. This comes after the country’s information minister Salah Abdel Maksoud announced that the informal ban on news presenters wearing the traditional hijab would be lifted in state-owned media outlets.
There were two reactions to Fatima Nabil’s decision to appear on television with the hijab. People either praised President Mohammed Morsi’s administration for going against the old regime’s policies, and allowing religious freedom in the workplace, or they criticized the administration for forcing religion on Egyptians through the media channels.
Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted from the presidential seat last year, kept a firm grip on his main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood. The party was forbidden from holding office under Mubarak, because it was seen as challenging the authoritarian rule. By forbidding religious symbols in his government, Mubarak and his regime were silencing what was seen as the strongest threat to the dictatorial regime. The hijab was seen as a symbol of political Islam that threatened the government’s oppression of its people.
The hijab represents more than religious observance in Egypt. It represents female empowerment, culture, and fashion: all elements making up an identity. For an Egyptian journalist like Nabil, wearing the hijab is second nature, and shouldn’t be viewed unilaterally as allegiance to the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. 90% of Egyptian women wear some kind of head covering.
Lifting the informal ban represents a new order, where women have more opportunities in the workplace. That said, I am not expressing my support for President Morsi’s administration, owing to the fact that the government continues to censor negative criticism in the media, and political prisoners incarcerated in the Mubarak era are yet to be freed. The unspoken ban on the hijab should never have been in place, so the new policy is a great achievement for Egyptian women and for civil liberties in general.
In 2002, Hala El Makli and Ghada El Tawil, two news presenters on an Egyptian state-run TV station started wearing the hijab to work, but were excluded from appearing on camera. The two women took their case to court two separate times, but the station still refused them employment. They made the case that it was their personal right to wear the hijab in a country in which a majority of women wear the headscarf anyway. Between the 2003 and 2007, about 30 women were refused on-screen jobs in state media because of their hijabs in Egypt.
Since April of 2011, it has been illegal to wear a face veil in France, and it’s not the only European country to do so. Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands are debating allowing Islamic garb in public. In Turkey, it is illegal to wear a headscarf in government buildings, including courthouses, and libraries. The Tunisian ban on the hijab was lifted following the revolution that overthrew the old government.
In a 2009 speech in Cairo, President Barack Obama stressed the importance of cultural tolerance.
“It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear,” he said. “We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.”
To those who believe that Islamism is replacing Mubarak’s regime, I respectfully urge you to study cultural revolutions in Egyptian history. The Egyptians will not mindlessly abide by the rule of a particular group. We Egyptian women are, after all, freethinking individuals who participated in overthrowing a three-decade old regime, and implying that we are otherwise is a testament to your ignorance of our culture and religion.
Now that Nabil is fully capable of choosing to do her job with or without a hijab, I expect her to be a role model for other women. State-owned media employees will no longer face oppressive workplace rules that violate personal freedoms — a symbol of progress in Egypt.