Maria TV: Exclusive for niqab
BY HEBA HESHAM
Serag El-Din, who studied directing at one of Egypt’s prestigious universities, was denied a job at a renowned Islamic satellite channel because she donned the niqab.
“This channel only provides administrative jobs for face-veiled women, but never in its studios, even if behind the cameras,” she said. “Even if I tried to find a non-media job, I would have been oppressed just like my colleagues, because the niqab is ostracized in society especially by employers.”
According to Islam Ahmed, son of the Salafi owner of the channel and the executive manager, Maria TV is “a breathing space for a segment that has long been marginalized by liberals and secularists.”
“We also refuse the stereotypes by which secularists want to present the Muslim woman through the type of programs that cater to her. She has always been a politician, doctor, engineer, etc.
“Nowadays she is kept a slave in the prison of liberalism; if she wants to work she has to do what her boss would like and wear what shows her body to him. Even if she wants to be a housewife, she has to display her body on the street to find a husband,” he argued.
Egyptologist Amal El-Dardiery, who presents “Masryat” (Egyptian Women) program that provides a new interpretation of Egypt’s ancient history on Maria TV, nodded in agreement, saying the niqab is the “free constraint.”
“I am very free to travel from Fayoum city (southwest Cairo) to Cairo without company. I went to college and prepared my Master’s and PhD in an American university through e-learning, and I move freely to and from work,” she explained.
She doesn’t see that covering the face is an obstacle to communication.
“I depend on my voice to convey my message and reactions on camera, and I do not see a good reason to display my body and face to the public,” she said.
Wearing the niqab was a choice she made on her own, she stressed. “We do not try to impose niqab on Muslim women, because this would be thuggery, which Islam prohibited.”
The concept of freedom in Islam is rooted in the choice of the channel’s name, albeit with a twist typical of the mother channel’s anti-Christian discourse.
“Maria is the woman who was enslaved by the Egyptian church and was taken from her parents along with her sister, Seriene, and was sent to prophet Mohamed to become a free woman, his wife and mother of his son. Therefore, Maria is the symbol of conversion from slavery to freedom under Islam,” said Ahmed.
Maria TV is not a new idea; the owner of its mother channel, Al-Ummah TV, wanted to launch it four years ago. However, in 2008 Al-Ummah’s studio was raided by security forces and its equipment was confiscated. It was forced to close due for financial reasons. The station was re-launched last year and Maria TV airs four hours a day on Al-Ummah TV for now.
The re-launch of the channel and its new creation coincide with the emergence of Islamists as the most influential political force post the Jan. 25 uprising. But, managers of Maria TV say the two are unrelated. “The presence of Islamists in politics and governance hinders our project, especially that the Muslim Brotherhood is against launching Maria TV because they do not support wearing niqab,” Ahmed said.
The management of the station is not only against Islamists, whom they say are not worthy of their name, but also condemn “liberal and secular media practitioners” who vehemently criticized having face-veiled women as TV anchors.
“Nudity is authorized and explicitly displayed on TV. And the transsexuals of liberal and secular media outlets want fully veiled women to go back to hiding because by just appearing on TV, a woman in niqab exposes the shame and disgrace of their scandalous message,” Ahmed said.
He doesn’t hold back when it comes to “liberals and secularists”, who sit at the extreme end of a polarized society where the exchange of verbal assaults with Islamists has become the norm. Ahmed, however, said his camp hasn’t started the attack yet.
“We have been taking their insolence for years; it’s payback time,” he said.
With major development plans laid out, Maria, one of the battlegrounds of this tug of war, will not remain under Al-Ummah’s banner for more than a year.
“We are planning to detach Maria TV from its mother channel, and to establish a number of projects and clubs that are exclusive to wearers of niqab to allow them to practice their rights … instead of being banned from entering the clubs that are affiliated to the military and other entities,” Ahmed said.
These places that ban the niqab are “built on Egyptian land and with Egyptians money but are discriminating against Egyptian women,” he added.
When asked about funding, Ahmed was offended by the question, which he says is only addressed to Islamists. “Why don’t belly dancers for instance, get asked the same question?” he said.
Still, he said that the Islamic Center of Enlightenment, which has been associated with his father since its launch in 1989, provides funding to the station.
His father, who owns both channels and goes by the alias of Abu Islam, said that in Islam nothing is called funding; it is an Islamic duty. “It should be considered charity or zakat, because the word funding seems to connote treason,” he said.
Monthly operation costs for both channels don’t exceed LE 200,000, but according to Abu Islam, Arabs and Muslims are “stingy with their money” when it comes to similar causes. Yet, the channel, he said, raises its operation costs every month through donations by its dedicated viewers.