More than 50 television serials have been produced for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, when soaps are big business, offering viewers a wide variety of romance, drama and politics.

 

However, the ones in which the newly veiled actresses make an appearance are being aired only on Arab satellite television, not on Egyptian terrestrial channels, much to the ire of the country's Islamists and some of the actresses themselves.

 

"I don't know whether it's a position against veiled women,  although they make up 85 per cent of Egyptian women," Hanan Turk recently told the Egyptian daily newspaper al-Masri al-Youm.

 

Six months after donning the Islamic headscarf and calling for  the "Iranisation" of Egyptian cinema, Turk appeared on the Street Children television series, which portrays the plight of children abandoned on Cairo's streets.

 

Ironically, her film Dunia, in which she plays a dancer  tormented by the temptations of sexual desire, will also be screened at the end of the month.

 

Devout women

 

Eleven years after the shock announcement that she was retiring and taking the veil, Suheir al-Babli, a veteran Egyptian actress, has also returned to the small screen and for the first time her viewers get to see her veiled.

 

"I used to dream of dying on stage, but now I want my life to end as I am bowing before God"

Suheir al-Babli, Egyptian actress

Al-Babli is in the series "The Heart of Habiba", which sees her  play the role of a devout woman who devotes her life only to  performing good deeds.

 

"I used to dream of dying on stage, but now I want my life to end as I am bowing before God," said Babli, who was amicably known as "Souska" when she used to play the roles of lost women or criminals.

 

Another actress, Sabrine, announced her retirement in 2000 after playing the role of the Um Kalthoum, the legendary music diva.

 

But she reappears this year with a new look as a pious woman trying to steer her husband back to the path of righteousness.

 

Bid for respectablity

 

Television serials are the main social activity during Islamic  month of Ramadan, when families are glued to their television sets after the iftar, the meal which breaks the day-long fast.

 

Suheir Ramzi has come out of
retirement to act

Advertisers inject large chunks of their budgets into  commercials aired during Ramadan and the prominence of actors and actresses is measured by their appearances during the holy month.

 

Yasser Musher, an Egyptian television critic from the weekly magazine Ahram Hebdo, says that veiled actresses are trying to regain popularity by appearing in dramas that are seen as "respectable".

 

Other actresses such as Suheir Ramzi, Abir Sabri and Mona Abdel Ghani have also stepped back into the business, without showing a lock of hair.

 

Their choice to return to entertainment while wearing the veil  reflects the growing modern religious trend of a society in which young moderate preachers such as Amr Khaled hold a great deal of sway.

 

"About 70 per cent of Egyptian women are veiled and I'm sure  they'd love to see me act," said Abir Sabri, who says she is  waiting for a good role "in line with Islam".

 

'Social reality'

 

Yet despite the return of veiled actresses en masse this year,  none of their soaps has yet been aired on Egyptian terrestrial  channels.

 

Ibrahim Zakariya Yunes, a legislator belonging to the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, questioned Ahmed Nazif, the Egyptian prime minister, on the issue.

 

"Of course the correct answer would be that the [television]  commission did not select these soaps because of their weak artistic levels," says Tarek Sherrawi, a television critic.

 

But the truth is, Sherrawi believes, that the televised serials  include an increasing number of veiled women "reflecting the social reality" of contemporary Egypt.