Broadcasting from under a veil

Two Egyptian anchorwomen are fighting for the right to wear hijabs when they read the news.

Published April 19, 2007 4:45PM (EDT)

Hold onto your hijabs. Another "take back the veil" battle is brewing at the intersection where the modern career girl meets the devout Muslim woman. But unlike the controversies involving full-face, identity-concealing veils, this brouhaha is about the hijab -- and not at a tae kwon do tournament. What's more, it's not taking place in a Western country, like Canada or Britain, where some residents are freaked out about a rising tide of fundamentalist Muslim immigrants, but in Egypt, where an estimated 75 percent of all women already wear some sort of veil.

So what's the big deal? Apparently concern about the powerful political message of Muslim headdress isn't limited to Italian politicians and Quebecois soccer refs. This week the BBC reported on two Egyptian anchorwomen who have been fighting for the past four years for the right to wear their hijabs while they read the evening news on the state-run TV station. The women argue that many female professionals -- from doctors to university professors -- wear the head scarf on television without incident. But on the state-run station, the dress code for newscasters prohibits veils and head scarves. (Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni has previously called the veil regressive.) The courts have upheld the women's case twice already, ordering the television station to allow newscasters to wear hijabs, but so far the stations have refused to comply. Recently, the women again went to court to force compliance, but the courts refused to hear the case, on the basis that the matter had already been decided.

Now the two newscasters want to take their case beyond Egypt's borders and pursue lawsuits in other courts around the world. As one of the women told the BBC, "We will go as far as we have to, it is our right to wear the veil." According to the BBC, some human rights organizations have agreed -- referring to the women's choice to wear the veil as an exercise of personal freedom.

As a Western feminist, it's hard to regard the veil as voluntary, much less as something worth going to battle for. But these women intrigue me because they obviously really want to keep their jobs and aren't inclined to take no for an answer. If they were fighting for something else, I'd probably be cheering them on, but as it is, I find myself wondering: If they get what they're fighting for, what will they lose?

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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