Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 September 2012
Issue No. 1113
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

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Opinions are divided over Maria TV, a new satellite television channel on which the all-female presenters are all fully veiled, writes Omneya Yousry

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Maria TV is a women's cultural channel that broadcasts within the framework of Islamist religious ideas. Its presenters appear shrouded in long, flowing black robes and wearing a full face veil known as the niqab with black gloves to match, making them distinguishable only by their voices and their eyes.

The channel is run primarily by women, who operate the cameras, present the shows and interview female guests ranging from doctors to students of Islamic theology. However, these women cannot show their faces during broadcasts, and no men are allowed on air during the channel's all-female programming, not even on phone-ins.

The channel was launched in a period that has seen greater freedom for the media in Egypt and particularly for the appearance of veiled women on television, discouraged under the rule of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak. Veiled women can now present television programmes particularly within the niche market of community programming, though the minister of information has recently also allowed the appearance of veiled female presenters even on state TV.

According to Alaa Abdallah, executive director and media spokesperson for Maria TV, the channel's name derives from that of Maria the Copt, one of the wives of the Prophet Mohamed. "She was the first woman to have enjoyed the right of choice in religion," Abdallah said, noting that when the prophet was given Maria, a slave, by the Patriarch Muqawqis he married her and set her free, causing her to convert to Islam.

The Maria channel started broadcasting on 20 July, the first day of Ramadan, in daily slots of four hours from 12pm to 4pm on the existing Al-Umma Channel owned by Ahmed Abdallah, known by his nickname "Abu Islam." During the Mubarak period, Al-Umma TV was raided many times by the security forces, and financial troubles forced it to shut down in 2008. Abu Islam himself was detained at least four times, the longest being for 22 days.

The station relaunched last year when the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Salafis emerged as the most influential political forces in post-Mubarak Egypt. Maria TV was launched to coincide with the start of Ramadan, and it is designed by Abdallah as part of a broader effort to expand his religious pan-Arab station Umma TV.

"We had been thinking of the idea since 2007, but the political conditions at the time did not allow us to make it a reality," said Alaa Abdallah. "Today, our presenters consist of five women, all of whom wear the niqab on air, though of course we also have more employees. At the moment, we work on a voluntary basis, and what brings us together is the idea of Maria TV. We didn't know each other before the idea arose. Since I'm a daughter of Abu Islam, he suggested that we announce on Al-Umma TV our intention to launch a new channel dedicated to women wearing the niqab. After that, we created a Facebook group for the same purpose and started to meet as volunteers at the Al-Umma office."

Shows broadcast by the channel range from beauty programmes, in which the presenters discuss make-up tricks without actually showing any, to shows about medicine, marriage, politics, human development, culture and religion. There is a satirical show poking fun at major news stories that uses puppets. According to Abdallah, Maria TV presents a variety of programmes covering all areas of interest to the Muslim family. "We depend on specialisation: medical programmes are presented by doctors, and social programmes are presented by sociologists," she said.

There are now more than five million women wearing the niqab in Egypt, Abdallah said, and this means that the channel has a large potential audience. "We are against men dealing with women's issues, which is why we do not accept men on the channel. However, we have needed the help of men employed by Al-Umma TV to help with technical issues and preliminary training," she said.

"For people who say that we are encouraging sectarianism, they should know that we are all working voluntarily for an idea and not for money. I don't accept women who do not wear the veil, or women who wear ordinary veils, working with us because they don't represent us. We are not excluding them from any job opportunity. We promote the idea that Muslim women should wear the niqab, which we believe is an obligation for all Muslim women. We want Muslim women wearing the niqab to be seen as role models for Muslim wives and mothers in the Egyptian media."

"We do not have any agenda to exclude anyone. All of us are one family and belong to one homeland. But I want to give young women the ability to see women who wear the niqab on television and to say 'I want to be like that,' helping to create a generation that wants to be like us."

Financially, Maria TV was launched with the help of donations sought through announcements on Al-Umma TV. "Every month, Al-Umma TV announces that it is looking for donations to renew its contract with the NileSat satellite. We do not depend on businessmen. On the contrary, ordinary people should be able to contribute to this Islamic project that serves the Muslim nation," Abdallah explained. Programmes are recorded at the Al-Umma studios in a second-floor apartment of a building overlooking one of Cairo's biggest mosques in Abbasiya Square.

However, not everyone is happy about the format of Maria TV. According to Sami El-Sherif, former president of the Egyptian Radio and Television Federation and currently dean of mass communication at a private university, the channel is inconsistent with the Egyptian media.

"They suffer from limited material in terms of content, and they do not serve their target audience," El-Sherif said. "Basic media thinking tells us that there should be communication between the sender of a message and that message's target audience, and one of the media's most important means of communication is eye contact. This is lost in the case of Maria TV."

"Moreover, there is incoherence in the idea of women wearing the niqab on TV. The idea of the niqab is to preclude women from appearing in public. However, these women do appear. As a result, there seems to be a violation of the thinking behind the wearing of the niqab."

However, El-Sherif added that similar channels may well appear. Maria TV is part of a trend, he said, and it is one that can be expected to spread because of the absence of regulation and the low fees charged for satellite transmission, leading to a proliferation of niche channels.

Some women wearing the niqab also said that they did not think that the channel represented them and that it could be acting to isolate them from the rest of society. Hemmat Safwat, who wears the niqab and is a Quranic teacher, said that she didn't see why there was a need for the channel. Maria TV was making the mistake of separating fully veiled women off from the rest of society, she said, something that such women did not need.

"If they really only accept fully veiled women, then I dislike them as much as I dislike channels that only accept unveiled women," said Amir Yousri, a designer. "We are seeing exactly the same kind of discrimination here that they claim to oppose. I'm fine with the idea of having fully veiled TV presenters, as long as they are not on the national TV channels, however. It is normal that private channels might seek to represent a specific kind of ideology and direct their programmes to the corresponding audience."

Annie Ferrer, an American housewife resident in Egypt, said that "it's a private channel, so they can do whatever they want. I just think it's strange. Maybe it will give jobs to women who would otherwise not want to work around men, but from the viewer's perspective I don't think it matters whether the person talking is covered or not. They should be judged by the quality of the programmes they offer."

"As for the discrimination part, it could be considered as a form of positive discrimination, which tries to incorporate people who are usually discriminated against. This kind of positive discrimination is very common in Europe, where governments must have a certain percentage of women working for them, or there must be a certain percentage of disabled employees."

Andaleeb Fahmi, a Faculty of Mass Communications member at the Canadian Al-Ahram University, expressed her astonishment at the idea of the channel, which she considered to be going against the idea of thematic channels. "What is the point of a niqab channel? Is it to display their problems, or is it a channel to invite people to be religious or what?" Mariam Alfred, a computer science student, also had difficulty accepting this kind of channel. "It's discrimination," she said. "For sure they will discuss everything from a very closed perspective with no acceptance of difference."

"If they think women's faces should be hidden, why don't they also think the same about their voices," asked Amira Safwat, a housewife and mass communications graduate. "I also have a problem with the kind of guests they will likely provide, as these will exclude men and any non-fully veiled women, which means they will not show me more than 90 per cent of the community. It's a private channel, so they are free to do whatever they want. But I'm also free to change the channel if I don't like it," she added.

"I'm in favour of the concept, as long as they represent a sector of the community. They can discuss their point of view like the Christian channels do, which nobody accuses of fanaticism," said Passinte Amin, a bank employee.

"If they don't accept any women other than women who wear the niqab, will they broadcast ads that contain all social categories? If not, will they have to depend on donations permanently," asked Hossam Elhami, a mechanical engineer. "I'm not really sure if it makes a difference for them or for the audience what they present on TV or on the radio. But if they lose the visual part of television, for me it will be like listening to a radio presenter," he added.

Abdallah expects positive feedback to Maria TV, although she knows there will likely be people who are against the idea. "We haven't had any opponents up to now, though there was a Facebook page called 'Together to close Maria TV.'" We are aiming to reach out to a part of society that has not been targeted by the media before," she said.

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