CAIRO — A female Egyptian news presenter appeared on state television wearing a veil for the first time on Sunday after the Islamist-dominated government lifted an effective ban that had been in place for decades under secular-leaning regimes of the past.
The ban on female news readers wearing the Islamic veil had long been criticized even by liberals and human rights activists as an infringement on personal freedoms — particularly in a country where more than half of all adult women cover their heads.
However, it was the latest move by authorities under new Islamist President Mohammed Morsi to make sweeping changes in state-controlled media. Just a few weeks ago, the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament or Shura Council, shuffled editors of state-run media and most of the 50 new appointees were either Islamists or their sympathizers. Egypt’s journalists’ union has accused Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group of trying to make the media its mouthpiece.
Many Egyptians fear Morsi and the powerful Brotherhood, which was outlawed and persecuted under former regimes, will give priority to Islamist interests at the expense of deep reform of the bloated and inefficient bureaucracy or pressing needs such as widespread poverty and economic crisis.
The ban on veils, enforced by state television for the half century it has been in existence, ended with the noon news bulletin when Fatma Nabil read out the headlines wearing a cream-colored headscarf and a dark suit.
Nabil worked for a year in the Muslim Brotherhood TV network Misr 25 after she was barred by state TV from appearing on air because of her veil. With Morsi’s election and the appointment of the new Information Minister, Salah Abdel-Maksoud of the Muslim Brotherhood, she said she was given the “green light” to come back to state TV.
“Now the standards have nothing to do with the veil, which is a personal choice, but are all about professional skills and intellect,” she said.
State-owned television, which employees nearly 40,000 staff, is among the largest employers of public servants in the country. It has long been closely associated with the ruling elite and plagued by rampant corruption. It suffers from low viewership because of lack of professional standards and lackluster programming.
Under the former President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, ousted in last year’s uprising, female TV employees who wore the veil would be asked to take jobs off camera. Some sued against the policy and won, but a Ministry of Information run by staunch regime loyalists ignored the rulings, and enforced a de facto ban. Mubarak’s predecessors followed a similar line.
The end result was that the faces on state TV mirrored those of the wives of the ruling elite, where the style was set by women such as the well-coiffed First Lady Suzanne Mubarak.
Mubarak’s exit and the subsequent election of Morsi put a new face on power. Morsi wears an Islamic beard, and the new First Lady Naglaa Mahmoud covers not just her hair but the entire upper half of her body, minus her face — a veiling style associated with the working class and female members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The vast majority of Muslim Egyptian women wear some form of head covering — from stylish scarves to the full face-covering veil called the niqab.
Privately-owned television networks have long employed veiled presenters and a number of famous actresses wear veils and appear in soap operas aired on state TV.
Hotel and airline workers were also discouraged from covering their heads, working in industries where former governments apparently wanted to promote a vision of modernity considered incompatible with veiling.
The changes on state television come against a backdrop of concern over a major reshuffling of the editors of state media last month.
In several incidents, journalists say, the new editors-in-chief have censored anti-Islamist columnists. In others they have fawned on Morsi as they once did on Mubarak.
State-owned October magazine ran a cover page last month depicting the president as a knight riding a horse and with a subtitle: “The revolution takes off.”
“I want to see state media tell the truth and to stop serving the ruler, whoever the ruler is,” said Farida el-Shoubashi, a media expert. “I don’t want the state media to tell me that the president weeps while he prays. I want to know how to the president is going to lift the country’s battered economy.”