- A new TV station is run by and features women wearing the niqab
- The niqab is a black fabric that covers a woman's entire face except eyes
- Some say the programming lets women's voices be heard; others say it's a U-turn for rights
After graduating from the mass communication department of Cairo University, Heba Seraq-Eddin couldn't find a job. Potential employers turned her down, she says, because of her veil. Heba wears the niqab, the black fabric that covers her whole face, except for the eyes.
"I used to tell them I won't appear on camera, my niqab won't be visible," recalls Serag-Eddin, trained as a director and camera operator. But there were no job offers and she felt that the networks rejected the very concept of the niqab in the workplace.
Then she came across an ad for a new TV channel called Maria, run exclusively by niqab-clad women. She was hired right away.
Maria, the first channel of its kind anywhere, kicked off with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on July 20. Until it gets more funding and staff, it's a daily four-hour broadcast on its mother channel, Al-Omma, an independent channel seen in the Middle East.
In an apartment in the eastern Cairo district of Abasya, the female volunteers of Maria share two studios with Al-Omma's staff. Men occasionally help move the colored wooden panels on set and perform other technical chores. And Islam Abdallah, Al-Omma's executive director, steps in to offer advice on how to talk to the camera.
While new hires are being trained, the station is using the skills of other women who favor the hijab -- the veil that's more like a head scarf -- to help. But the objective is to depend solely on niqab-clad women. So far, they all work as volunteers.
"I felt that we finally have a place in society after being marginalized. As women wearing niqab, we had no rights, and no one to talk about us. Through Maria, we'll find people like us talking about us, with no discrimination," Seraq-Eddin says.
The niqab has sparked many debates about discrimination over the years. Public universities' ban of them during exams or in dormitories were the subject of numerous court battles and were condemned by advocacy groups. Women often complain of an unwelcoming job market with an unwritten discrimination.
Maria director Alaa Abdallah says that being part of the TV project showed her and other team members that they did, indeed, have the skills for the job.
"We are trying to create a better society after the earthquake of freedom that was January 25," Alaa Abdallah explains. She says Egypt's intellectuals should support her right to speak up and her right to give a marginalized segment of society a voice.
One of those intellectuals is not convinced. The network taps into the rhetoric of women's empowerment, says Adel Iskandar, media scholar at Georgetown University, but there is a "very strong case to be made that it's a gimmick."
Others are worried that the rise of political Islam in Egypt will radicalize the society. They argue that a TV network that features only women with covered faces is a "U-turn" on the path of the so-called Arab uprising.
Alaa Abdallah says she avidly supports freedom of expression, but wouldn't grant her critics the same leeway she demands. "I stand by freedom of expression as long as it isn't hostile to Islam," she says, arguing that "secular and liberal" channels are "destructive" in the way they are promoting ideas that would reshape society.
Abu Islam Abdallah, Alaa's father and the owner of Al-Omma, believes he's restoring the balance. By stressing the niqab, he believes he evens out what he describes as the "racism" against these women.
He describes as heretic the type of democratic system that allows women "to dress immodestly, work as dancers and even be members of Parliament." That's "pandemonium," he says.
Al-Omma -- which means the nation -- is full of "anti-Christianization" rhetoric. There is less of that on Maria, named for the woman thought to have been the prophet Mohammed's Coptic wife. Its female-oriented, cultural programming "within a religious framework," as Alaa Abdallah describes it, might even have greater potential than Al-Omma and its donation-based funding model.
Maria caters to a niche market untapped even by ultraconservative channels, according to Iskandar. But normalizing the appearance of women covered from head to toe in black could be a double-edged sword. "It takes away from their mystique, their exoticism," he argues.
Others believe Maria might end up isolating the niqab "community" and only underline the controversy over the full veil.
Either way, the biggest challenge, according to Iskandar, will be to overcome what may be visually dull presentation with creative content.