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Behind the veil

Viktoria Kleber / gswAugust 21, 2012

Maria TV in Egypt has been on air for a month. Women completely covered in veils go on camera to deliver tips on topics like marriage and beauty. The ultra-conservative broadcaster suggests a turn in Egyptian society.

Nahla Hashad, a presenter at the Maria Channel, speaks during a segment of a Ramadan program (Photo:Maya Alleruzzo/AP/dapd)
Image: dapd

It's just her brown eyes that viewers see - no part of her body. Abeer Shahin is clothed from head-to-toe in a black garment. Gloves cover her hands, and a scarf known as a niqab conceals her face.

Abeer Shahin works day-to-day as a moderator at Maria TV, a broadcaster for, and by, deeply conservative Muslim women. Maria TV has been on air for a month, and its employees wear the niqab both on and off camera. Under Hosni Mubarak's rule, that would have been unthinkable. Abeer Shahin views Maria TV as proof that the revolution in Egypt was a success.
"With Maria TV, we are fighting discrimination against fully veiled women," she said.

From beauty tips to faith

Maria TV aims to give conservative Muslim women more self-assurance by offering them advice with a solid basis in Islamic teachings. The broadcasts run for six hours daily, taking up topics like marriage, infidelity, raising children, managing a home and health and beauty.

Men are barred from the shows, including from calling in. When female experts go on air, they must wear a facial scarf or be pixelated on air. Maria TV's producers see the niqab as a religious duty.

"There is only one way for a Muslim woman to dress appropriately," said Abeer Shahin. "She must wear the niqab. That is written in Islamic law."
Shahin believes only by way of the veil is it possible for people to judge a person, not based on appearance, but on character. However, the majority of Egypt's Muslims reject the veil. And Al-Azhar University, the highest teaching authority on religious questions within Sunni Islam, went as far as to ban wearing the niqab. University members argue that there is no mention of the niqab in the Koran, or elsewhere in basic Islamic writings.

Liberal outrage

Maria TV targets just a small minority of Egyptians - some of whom say the broadcaster is not conservative enough. The women's voices could entice men, and, as such, should be voiced over with male voices, said one critic identified as Sheik Ibrahim.

However, many more Egyptians found Maria TV offensive for other reasons. Women's rights activist Sally Zohney initially opposed the channel, but she has come to see things differently.

"A lot of comments were like: This will encourage women to wear the veil or the full-face-cover. But at the same time as I'm asking for our rights to have very secular women, it's also their right to have their own representatives in the media,” Zohney said.

Maria TV is named after Maria, a Coptic slave from Egypt, whom the prophet Mohammed liberated and then took as a concubine. The station's founder Ahmed Abdalla, known in the Salafist scene as preacher Abu Islam, has refused to state where the station's funding comes from. He went on air in 2006 with Ummah TV, a missionary channel. Mubarak's security personnel regularly went to the studio and confiscated cameras and computers, eventually imprisoning Ahmed Abdallah.
Islamist power on the rise

Today Ahmed Abdallah is a free man. He and other conservatives sense their time has come. They command women on the streets to wear headscarves, or unmarried couples not to hold hands. In the port city of Suez, a Salafist recently murdered a young man because he was sitting with his fiancée in a park at night - alone. Before parliament was dissolved in February, Islamists had discussed whether women should be forbidden from applying for divorce and whether the age for marrying legally should be dropped from 18 to 12.

For years, Islam has gradually gained influence in Egyptian society. But Sally Zohney says the effects of that trend are just now being felt, due to the growing confidence of Islamists.

"It's a growing culture of headscarf and niqab, of teenage girls, of university students wearing the niqab, which I hadn't experienced when I was younger. It's just a trend that's come to the surface with the election of an Islamic president. It's making them feel more comfortable," Zohney said.

She and many other liberals are growing scared. Maria TV is a small and seemingly harmless change that reflects their concerns. But moderator Abeer Shahin is quite proud to be seen in television, even if she would be largely unidentifiable to her viewers on the street.

Feminist and activist Sally Zohney zugeliefert von Viktoria Kleber 08-2012
Activist Sally Zohney's opposition to the channel has relentedImage: zugeliefert von ivat
Ameera Essa directs colleagues at the Maria Channel as they prepare to film a segment of a Ramadan program (Photo:Maya Alleruzzo/AP/dapd)
Some Egyptian Muslims say the channel isn't conservative enoughImage: dapd
Heba Seraj films a segment of a Ramadan program at the Maria Channel's studio in Cairo (Photo:Maya Alleruzzo/AP/dapd)
Men are barred from appearing on Maria TV in any wayImage: dapd