CAIRO: A female Egyptian news presenter appeared on state television wearing a veil for the first time 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, lifting the ban was the latest move by authorities under new Islamist President Mohammad Mursi 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 Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood of trying to make the media its mouthpiece.
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 Mursi’s election and the appointment of the new information minister, the Brotherhood’s Salah Abdel-Maqsoud, she said she was given the green light to return 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.
Under 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 the Information Ministry run by staunch regime loyalists ignored the rulings, and enforced a de facto ban. Mubarak’s predecessors followed a similar line.
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 television.
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.
Separately, a popular Egyptian TV presenter accused of inciting the killing of Mursi on air denied the charges at the opening of his trial Saturday, saying the case against him was part of a political row, Egypt’s state news agency reported.
The flamboyant Tawfiq Okasha, who said on air that it was permissible to shed Mursi’s blood, has emerged over the past months as one of the most popular media personalities in the country.
The case against Okasha is one of several lawsuits brought mainly by Egypt’s Islamists against journalists, accusing them of inflammatory coverage and inciting the public against the Brotherhood, the country’s largest political group.
According to Egypt’s Middle East News Agency, the prosecutor in the trial accused Okasha Saturday of using his TV program in July and August to incite the killing of Mursi, and of insulting him by calling him an “illegitimate leader and a liar.”
Okasha denied the charges and said it was part of a political row between him and the Brotherhood. If convicted, he can face up to three years in jail. He told reporters Saturday his comments were taken out of context.