Salafi sheik Abou Islam Abdallah had a dream: a television channel run only by women wearing the full-face veil. He would have to wait years, and the fall of the Mubarak regime, to see the all-niqab network launch this week for the first time.
CAIRO - Egyptian Salafi sheikh Abou Islam Abdallah woke up one morning in 2005 with a brilliant idea. It was a dream he'd obsess over for seven years: a television channel run only by women wearing the full-face veil. No hijabs, headscarves or other partial forms of covering: on Ummah TV, a fig leaf wouldn't be enough. Niqabs, gloves, socks. Period.
He was tired of the tacky Egyptian television anchors with their sparkly, frilly blouses, blow-dried hair and shimmering lip-gloss. He wanted a simpler, more sober style, for the anchors on Ummah TV: there is black, black and more black. In short, a paradise like no other.
Of the dozens of Islamic TV channels already frantically competing to attract religious believers put off by cable broadcasters' wiggling hips, not one had previously dared to think of an idea as thorough and thought-out as this one. Abou Islam Abdallah has obviously had a divine illumination.
For years, the only problem was that the niqab was banned from Egyptian TV screens by the Rais himself: Hosni Mubarak. Abou Islam had to put his dreams of glory on the backburner; and while he waited, he launched a more modest Islamic television station, Ummah TV, presented only by men with thick beards.
One morning in January 2011, however, came the revolution: a godsend. Suddenly Salafis, previously bullied by the iron fist of the previous regime, could now express their beliefs and their way of dressing; they could even think about creating their own political parties to espouse the practice of Sharia law and create an Islamist state.
Abou Islam knew that his time had come, and in the space of a few months, he had recruited 30 presenters, who would only show their eyes. The entire team would be made up exclusively of women: from technicians to presenters, journalists to directors.
The result, slated to be broadcast for the first time on July 20, the first day of Ramadan, has surpassed expectations: all male presence will be eliminated. If a woman appears on screen not entirely covered by the veil, her face will be censored and the main aim of the programmers will be to promote the niqab and to respond to the issue of female adultery.
"It's a project that combats discrimination," affirms the director, Sheyka Safaa Rifa'i. "Because women who wear the full face veil are being excluded from the media."
Better suited for radio?
In the Egyptian media, which is currently preparing its Ramadan broadcasting schedule - mainly filled with cheesy soap operas - consternation and disbelief prevail, especially as the news of the project came in the wake of the arrest of the owner of an oriental dance television channel.
"I think the concept is more appropriate for radio," says Mona Salman, an Egyptian anchor for Al Jazeera. But across the industry, no one can ignore that the emergence of a "100% niqab" TV station demonstrates that the Salafis are succeeding in their demands at both the political and judicial level.
A few months ago, they were seen as gatecrashers, unafraid of ridicule but not organized enough to transform their ideas into policies. But since their unexpected breakthrough in the legislative elections in January, garnering a quarter of the seats of Parliament, their demands are becoming more and more pressing.
Within the constituent assembly, they are explicitly calling for the modification of Article 2 of the 1971 Constitution, which outlines that "the principles of Sharia are the main sources of legislation." The replacement of "the principles of Sharia" with "Sharia" implies a possible introduction of Islamic punishments: an unacceptable demand for the other political parties.
When they are not campaigning in favor of the right to have a full beard in the police or on Egyptair, or for the reform of divorce and family law, some Salafis are devoting themselves to activities that are provoking the worst fears.
Outside of the city, there has been an emergence of "moral police" brigades, who are seeking to impose segregation of sexes on buses, in hairdressers and universities. On the beaches of the Mediterranean, pamphlets have been handed out against music.
On June 25, a 20-year-old man was stabbed to death by extremists while he was walking with his girlfriend in a Suez park. People also point to the death of a musician attacked while leaving a wedding by men who presented themselves as Salafis.
Are the Salafis, who are setting their sights on the future Ministry of Higher Education, moving towards open conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, who are in turn worried about antagonizing liberals? The more radical supporters could in any case cause an explosion of the Salafi movement, between political leaders, ready to make concessions on ideology in order to assure a part of power, and more hardline militants.
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