Egyptian state television has lifted a decades-long ban on veiled female news presenters, whom successive secular-leaning regimes had barred from going on air.
In a cream-coloured headscarf and a dark suit, Fatma Nabil appeared on Sunday to read the 1200pm news bulletin.
State TV said this was the first such appearance by a woman with her hair covered since the channel was established a half century ago.
The ban on female news readers wearing the Islamic veil had long been criticised by liberals and human rights activists as an infringement on personal freedoms – particularly in a country where the vast majority of 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 political allies.
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.
TV official Mohammed Fathi said that Nabil’s appearance would encourage many other women who wished to wear the veil but had feared losing their jobs.
Nabil had 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.
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With Morsi’s election and the appointment of the Salah Abdel-Maksoud of the Muslim Brotherhood as the new information minister, 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 employs 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.
Under Hosni Mubarak’s government, which was toppled 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 an information ministry 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.
Change of guard
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.
Most Muslim Egyptian women wear some form of head covering – from stylish scarves to the full face-covering veil, or 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.”