Wearing the Hijab on Egyptian TV

Kariman Hamza was one of the first veiled presenters on air, paving the way for many other women like myself

Wearing the Hijab on Egyptian TV
With the advent of Gulf satellite channels, reporters wearing the hijab became a more common sight across the Middle East. (Lynsey Addario/Getty Images Reportage)

The recent passing of Kariman Hamza (1942-2023), Egypt’s pioneering veiled television presenter, has reignited an old debate on the headscarf, its place in public life and its connection to politics. Despite our divergent experiences and her greater influence and expertise, Hamza and I share traits, including our work in the media, particularly Egyptian television, and the visible symbol of our hijab, and I often felt an attachment to her.

In 1970, Hamza appeared on a number of religious TV programs still recalled by many today. With her calm features, composed voice and unusual look for the time, which nonetheless suited the content of her shows, she cast her gaze upon an Egypt heaving with major events, the effects of which extended to almost every aspect of life.

At the time, Egypt was groaning under the weight of its defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War, or the “Naksa” (the Setback), as it was dubbed. Perhaps Egyptians were trying to find solace from the bitterness of that defeat and a way to overcome it, by leaning on religion and its rites, seeking thereby to raise their morale and find hope that their steadfast endurance in the face of hardship might be rewarded.

This tendency appeared clearly in the period after 1967, and even more so after the October 1973 war. These years witnessed a great media, cultural and artistic hubbub, most of it focused on promoting religion and emphasizing its virtues, as exemplified by the “manifest victory” attained by the country in the so-called “Battle of the Crossing,” when Egyptian forces traversed the Israeli-occupied Suez Canal in the course of the 1973 war.

Hamza’s career began while the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was starting his term in office (1970-1981). For this reason, many ascribed her emergence on the screen to the inclinations of the new leader, who was quickly dubbed the “Believer President” by various Egyptians, whether seriously or in jest. Matters reached the point that, in the 1970s, the Egyptian Parliament discussed a proposal to name Sadat “the sixth rightly guided caliph” (the first five of these revered leaders of the Muslim world had lived centuries ago, shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad). The suggestion was only abandoned when Sadat was assassinated in 1981.

In the 1970s, the religious clergy experienced a significant surge in influence within the Egyptian media landscape. One of the era’s most prominent figures was Sheikh Muhammad Mutawalli al-Shaarawi (1911-1998), whose sermons continue to resonate and maintain a broad following in Egypt and beyond through various social media platforms to this day.

These changes were widely seen as part of a campaign waged by the new regime against the Egyptian left, as well as those devoted to Sadat’s predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who were then still influential in Egypt’s universities and political sphere more broadly. Given this fact, the regime was in need of forces to compete with the left or, indeed, oppose it with open hostility.

The authorities found what they were looking for in Egypt’s Islamist groups, whose political prisoners were freed. The latter included Kariman Hamza’s husband, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter arrested in the Nasser era. The liberated prisoners were returned to their former jobs and permitted to publish their private magazines, such as al-Daawa (The Call) and al-Itisam (Adherence).

About 11 years after that reconciliation with political Islam, however, Sadat arrived at a different conviction.

“I was mistaken,” he said in a speech, referring to his rapprochement with the Islamists. “I should have left them where they were.” Yet he had little time to rectify the situation, as he saw it, before being killed by those whose leaders’ hands he had shaken.

While that was happening, Hamza was finding her feet on the small screen as a presenter with a unique identity and eye-catching presence. Her path was not without obstacles and stumbles, as she recounted in her 1999 autobiography “Lillahi Ya Zamri.”

Hamza wrote in the book, in a reserved style, about the harassment she faced in her work, ranging from negative comments about her appearance to the banning of some of her shows, as well as intervention in the content of her religious programs and limitations on the people she met.

Hamza’s presence in the spotlight brought her much criticism, paradoxically uniting opponents of political Islam with some of its most extreme proponents. The former saw her as a tool in the hands of the authorities, used according to their whims. Hamza repeatedly denied this charge, affirming that her media message was free of any political agenda, and was instead intended to address thought and feeling, which led to her success in persuading large numbers of women to wear the hijab.

To be sure, the gradual spread of the hijab in Egypt’s streets and places of work and study was not solely due to Hamza. The many drivers of its growing popularity also included the rising numbers of Egyptians working in Gulf states who brought the latter’s conservative culture back to their homeland.

As for the Islamists among Hamza’s critics, some of them charged that she distorted the image of what they perceived as the “correct” Islamic head covering, promoting instead a “more lenient” style thereof, in their words. One such critic, writing about Hamza on social media after her death, said she had spread the “bidaa” (heretical innovation) of the “prettified hijab” and contributed to turning the hijab into a mere “head covering unrelated to religion or morals.”

It was apparently these mounting criticisms — particularly in the era of Sadat’s successor as president, Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) — that pushed Hamza to leave her country’s television industry. She joined the religious satellite channel Iqra, funded by Saudi Arabia, which attracted faces no longer present in their countries’ official media, including women artists who had abandoned their former ways and put on the hijab.

As a young woman who had just graduated from university in Egypt and recently decided to wear the hijab, I often heard Hamza’s name mentioned in our middle-class home, whether by my father, who keenly followed her shows and discussions with leading clerics, or my mother, who saw Hamza as an example encouraging me to explore the media field and become a presenter like her someday.

Initially, I opted instead to teach for a short while at a university, owing to my superior grades. At the turn of the 21st century, however, I began working at the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (now known as the National Media Authority).

I started out as a journalist in the newsroom of the venerable Egyptian Radio, which gave me the opportunity to be mentored by great maestros of the art of radio editing, laying the foundations upon which my future career would be built.

After that, I moved to the TV newsroom, working on the editorial team, before my duties grew to include preparing shows and field reports. It was at this time, specifically, that I began to feel something of what Hamza had suffered some three decades earlier.

I came to realize there was an unwritten rule, applied as strictly as though it were law, prohibiting veiled women presenters from appearing on official Egyptian TV.

For that reason, Egyptian presenters who chose to wear the hijab had to cease working in the 1990s and 2000s or were transferred to other roles, such as content creation or vocal commentary, to keep them off the screens. Many of them actually fought legal battles to try to return to the screen, without success. Egypt at the time had been reeling from a series of terrorist attacks in the early 1990s and had begun a campaign to crush an extremist Islamist insurgency that had excommunicated much of society and the country’s political echelons.

I recall one occasion, while I was editing a video report from the field, when the supervisor came to me and ordered me to delete a scene in which my veiled head had appeared during my meeting with an official. Naturally, I was also forbidden to appear on screen for the conclusion of the report, whereas my unveiled colleagues were permitted to do so.

For these and other reasons, I arrived at a firm conviction that there was no place for me on screen in Egyptian official TV so long as I maintained my convictions and appearance, which I had freely chosen. To me, the door was bolted shut and would never open, since behind it stood influential politicians close to the president himself, standing at the top of Egypt’s media pyramid.

What is strange is that this conviction stayed with me even at the start of my cherished journey to London in 2007, where I worked for BBC Arabic TV. At first, I didn’t dare so much as think of the possibility of becoming a presenter for the station, contenting myself with being among the team of journalists who founded that then-nascent channel, even though other Arab channels at the time, such as Qatar’s Al Jazeera, did allow veiled women on their screens.

Soon, however, a pivotal moment came that changed my course and thinking, when the chief editor summoned me to ask why I didn’t conduct field reports like the rest of my colleagues. With a gesture at my hijab, I replied, “That’s why.” Immediately, the editor responded, “And what’s wrong with that?” before suggesting that I choose a topic to report on in the heart of the British capital.

For a moment, I lost my composure, as years of flimsy, imaginary shackles collapsed in front of me; shackles that had existed even in a conservative country described as the beacon of the Islamic world, teeming with unsurpassed scholars of religion, to which students of Islamic theology flocked from all over the world. At first, I had wondered how I would fare in Britain, where more than half the population professed themselves nonreligious and more than 100 hate crimes against Muslims had been recorded in the past year alone, to say nothing of its different culture, customs and traditions, which were at odds in many respects with those which I had been raised with and continued to uphold.

And yet it was here that my career ambitions were unexpectedly realized, when I became the first veiled correspondent to appear on any BBC screen, in any language. A few years later, I became the first hijab-wearing reader of the news broadcast for the same network, whose royal charter spoke of “celebrating differences.”

Between the stages of creating content for the BBC’s field reports and my appearance to read the news, I was not swept up in either the dazzling intoxication of this transformation or the celebration by Arab media of these significant changes in my career. I was well aware that there were still many skills I had to learn and many important tools to gain for television broadcasting. And where better to turn than the distinguished BBC Radio? I transferred to the radio, working alongside its leading lights and insatiably devouring their expertise and knowledge in order to pass the test to be a presenter for BBC Arabic TV, in a return marked by poise and maturity. In April 2023, the mother institution awarded me the “Most Inspiring Woman in the News Industry” prize.

Of course, I was not spared criticism and negative comments, such as the claim that I was promoting the hijab, seen by some as a symbol of persecution and oppression of women in Arab countries and the Muslim world. I recall someone describing me, in a comment on social media, as one of the BBC’s “harair,” an Arabic word used in some circles to denote women affiliated with Islamist groups, in an implicit accusation that I, too, was of the same persuasion, perhaps with support from the BBC.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, the authorities continued to forbid veiled presenters to appear on screen, except on religious shows, despite the astronomical rise in the number of Egyptian women wearing the hijab. Many ascribed this to what was known in the first decade of this century as the phenomenon of the “new proselytizers,” those with contemporary language and simple vocabulary, with which they offered what was described as a moderate version of Islam on TV screens, in cassette tapes and even inside clubs and lecture halls.

The effect of these “new proselytizers” was considerable in Egyptian society, to the extent that the campaigns of repression of Islamists that were continual in Mubarak’s era did little to lower their number of followers.

Then, all of a sudden, Egypt was shaken by the popular uprising known as the January 25 Revolution in 2011, which broke out amid the Arab Spring protests. This was ascribed by many to the country’s blocked political horizons, the laws suppressing freedoms, widespread corruption and repressive police practices, not to mention the declining economic situation and other factors. This sociopolitical transformation brought both Islamists and liberals to the fore, though the Islamists held the upper hand.

At first, it appeared that the new revolution had granted freedom, in the broad sense, to certain segments of Egyptian society, at least momentarily. Each of these chose the kind of freedom that suited them, according to their preferences, even if it meant rebelling against any and all systems and laws. As a result of these stormy changes, presidential authority briefly passed to the late Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member whose term in office lasted less than a year. Under Morsi, the authorities dealt differently with the issue of veiled presenters.

In September 2012, for the first time since its inception in July 1960, Egyptian television saw a veiled newsreader on screen. That opened the path for others, whose faces soon became a commonplace sight. Some drew links between this and the arrival of Islamists to power, an explanation echoing that which prevailed when Kariman Hamza appeared in the Sadat era.

On the other hand, with divisions deepening in the Egyptian political scene and accusations mounting against “political Islam” that it had reneged on its promises with regard to achieving the goals of the uprising that toppled Mubarak’s regime, voices rose demanding the removal of the hijab, on the grounds that it was — in these people’s view — a symbol of social and religious shackles and undesirable cultural inheritances.

To me, this shift in Egyptian society with regard to the hijab — whether the call to wear it or the demand to remove it; whether for political, communal or religious reasons — was logical and understandable in light of the recent events. Yet what concerned me at the time, and does still to this day, was that all Egyptians should be equal in terms of rights and duties. The way I saw it, no woman should be prohibited from practicing a profession or activity or face harassment because of her appearance, with no consideration given to her competency, expertise and suitability, in contravention of the freedoms of opinion, belief and expression that successive Egyptian constitutions have enshrined since 1923.

Through my appearances on the BBC, and over the course of my journey, filled with twists and turns, successes and stumbles, I have come to realize with pride that I provide not only news and media content but also, in the eyes of many, a message of courage and glimmer of hope to other women who still stand forcefully in defense of their rights and freedom to have their voices heard, and to break the communal or political barriers that impede the attainment of their goals. This applies especially to young veiled students, searching for a place in the media field, which some of them find oppressive — those who tell me in their messages that I have become, for them, a source of encouragement and inspiration for the future, promising them success each time I take to the screen.

With the passage of years and accumulation of life and work experience, I have come to feel that I stand in the same trench as the late Kariman Hamza in terms of holding fast to principle and the right to choose. Her rich experience was a milestone in the formation of much of the public consciousness, impressing with its display of personal conviction and harmony between her work and her ideas and beliefs.

Despite the fact that Hamza, because she worked on official state TV, repeatedly had to deny any ties to the authorities, as well as links with Islamists in light of her marriage to a former Muslim Brotherhood political prisoner, her experience appeared to be an embodiment of the political mood and its social effect over the course of decades, from the rise of Islamism in Egypt to its fall.

As for myself, despite my limited experience compared with Hamza’s and the modest degree of harassment I faced in my mother country, it appears that she and I share more than just our field of work, religious convictions and style of dress. From the start of my journey working in the media, I have found myself guided by a saying of Hamza’s that is still widely remembered: “The pioneers who begin a new work in any field … must carve the rock” to pave their own path successfully therein.

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