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Actress' decision to quit stage draws fierce backlash from liberals

An Egyptian actress' decision to quit acting and don the hijab has stirred controversy in Egypt, highlighting the widening rift between ultraconservatives and liberals in society.
Egyptian actresses Hala Shiha (L) and Mana Shalabi pose during the premiere screening of their new film "Uridu Kholaa" at a film theater, Cairo, Egypt, Nov. 2, 2005.

Egyptian actress Hala Shiha has come under fire in recent days over controversial remarks she published on her Instagram account suggesting that working in the entertainment industry is "sinful." The Instagram post earned her the wrath of fellow artists and a permanent ban from the Actors Syndicate. It has also served to highlight the deep divisions between seculars and Salafists in the conservative society.

Shiha's remarks came in response to the release of a music video clip depicting the actress in romantic scenes with singer Tamer Hosni, the costar in her latest film "Not me," shot over a year ago. Shiha has had a change of heart since starring in the film whose screening was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. In recent days, she has renounced acting for the second time, choosing to revert to wearing the hijab. Many of her fans suspect that Islamic preacher Mo'ez Massoud, whom she married in February, may be behind her decision.  

In 2005, Shiha quit acting and started wearing a headscarf after marrying a Canadian convert to Islam. The move stirred wide controversy at the time; ultraconservatives supported her decision while liberals denounced it. Three years ago — after 13 years away from the limelight — she removed her veil, paving the way for her return to the silver screen. But in a surprise move earlier this month, Shiha pulled the plug on her acting career once again, announcing in an Instagram post that she had "repented."    

"I was astonished by the release of the music clip depicting scenes from the film and which coincided with Dhul Hijja, a sacred time [for Muslims], especially as the clip's release came after my latest post in which I made clear who I have become," she wrote in apparent reference to the change in her identity and worldview.

"I was even more surprised that Tamer Hosny had broken his promise to respect my  wishes," she lamented, possibly in regard to her stated desire not to appear in love scenes.

Shiha continued, "We may have succeeded by worldly standards but not by God's rules … but the lure for fame and success [often] prevents us from weighing things properly. I'm speaking from the heart: this music video clip violates God's principles. I cried when I watched it as it saddened me to see myself in such scenes. It was a misstep resulting from circumstances I experienced earlier; we all make mistakes as we are humans."

Distancing herself from the scenes in the video clip, she added, "I have repented; such scenes are inappropriate; I made a mistake and am now correcting it. The most important thing for me is to submit to God's will. If art leads us to deviate from the path God has dictated, then it is sinful."  

In a post published on his social media accounts, Hosny regretted Shiha's stance vis-a-vis the music clip, and denied he had broken any promises. He assured Shiha that he had had several scenes removed from the clip in compliance with her wishes and reminded her that she had thanked him for doing so. Hosny expressed his surprise that Shiha's post was published after the film had been in theaters for three weeks. "[It is ironic that] you deem it haram [sinful] to publish the music video on YouTube but you are OK with it being shown in cinemas," he wrote.  

Shiha's words ruffled the feathers of artists, unleashing a backlash against her on social media. Producer Mohamed El Adl was quoted by Masrawy news site as saying, "Sorry, but I am proud to work in the entertainment industry." He reminded Shiha that she had acted in the film of her own free will. "If you believe it is forbidden to act, will you spend forbidden money? Return the money [you earned from the film]." Film director Mando El Adl also lambasted Shiha. "If you get divorced, don't return to acting," he tweeted.

Meanwhile, Ahmed Shiha, the actress' father who is a visual artist, tried to defend her, saying in a phone interview broadcast on the MBC channel, "Hala appears to be under heavy pressure — God knows from which groups. … I am certain there are ongoing attempts to hijack her once again." He condemned the decision by the Actors Syndicate to suspend his daughter's membership, saying such a move only serves the interest of the hijackers as it would help them in achieving their goals. "We need to wait to find out who is behind Hala's decision to quit acting. This is not the Hala we know; as a father and artist, I reject such [radical] views and have always stood firm against [extremist] groups under whose influence my daughter has fallen."

Shiha's husband, Mo'ez Massoud, also expressed solidarity with his wife, writing in a post on his Instagram account that he fully understands her feelings when watching the music clip. "I fully understand what you meant: You reject a certain genre but not art in general," he wrote in reference to some suggestive scenes in the video.

Meanwhile, the Actors Syndicate released a statement rejecting any attempts to drag it backward "by spreading dark ideology from which Egyptian society has suffered for decades — whether publicly through social media platforms or via personal accounts of those that have quit their acting careers under the pretext of repentance as if the God-given talent of artists is a sin." The syndicate further described the decision by some artists to quit acting as "a decision based on personal interests or gains."

Ashraf Zaki, head of the Actors Syndicate, also issued a sharp rebuke to Shiha, telling her that there was no place for her in the syndicate. He told Al-Monitor that Shiha's membership was revoked when she quit the first time. "We were working on renewing it but we now realize we made a mistake when we agreed to welcome her back into the fold [when she decided to return]. People [like her] that are inconsistent in their views should seek psychological treatment," he added.

Dar al-Ifta, the institution responsible for issuing religious edicts, stated via a video published on its official website in December 2018 that "acting is like any other profession; it either conveys a useful or harmful message."

Amr al-Wardani, a prominent Al-Azhar preacher, says in the video, "Actors are not liars; rather they are storytellers as they tell the stories in the script." Acting is not sinful, he concludes, but cautions that it can be forbidden if it carries harmful messages, contains sexually explicit content or leads one into temptation. "So the content is what determines if it is haram or not," he said.

Salafists, meanwhile, welcomed Shiha's decision to quit acting and slammed the Actors Syndicate for banning the actress. In fiery comments published on his Facebook page, Hatem al-Huwaithy, son of a prominent Salafi leader, insisted that acting is "immoral" and "sinful." He urged Zaki to repent "as you are over 60." Huwaithy, however, removed the post after Zaki threatened to sue him for slander in a phone interview broadcast on MBC. 

Islamic preacher Abdalla Rushdy also attacked secularists for their stance vis-a-vis Shiha's return to the hijab. "The secularists have no respect for [people's] choices and have double standards in regard to freedoms; they stand in solidarity with anything that goes against religion," he tweeted.

The hullabaloo over Shiha's decision to wear the headscarf has brought to the surface the widening rift between Egypt's Salafists — who follow a puritanical form of Islam, redefining religion according to how they imagine the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers practiced Islam — and liberals.

Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which has borne the brunt of the security crackdown on dissent and has been designated a terrorist group, Salafists — the alternative Islamic movement in Egypt — has to date managed to escape punishment for their short-lived political activism during the post-revolution transition. 

While the Salafists did throw their weight behind Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi — campaigning for him vigorously in the 2012 presidential runoff with former regime minister Ahmed Shafik — they did not see eye to eye with Morsi on all matters; there was an unspoken rivalry between the two Islamic groups. Moreover, they refrained from participating in violent anti-government protests, choosing instead to adopt a wait-and-see approach during and after the 2013 military-backed protests that overthrew Morsi.

Some Salafi groups such as the Nour Party, founded after the 2011 uprising, have even backed President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which has political ambitions, the Salafists' prime concern is to ensure the state's commitment to Islam and Sharia. Article 2 of the 2014 constitution stipulates that Islam is the state religion and the principles of Sharia are the principal source of legislation in the country. 

The government in turn has turned a blind eye to the growing Salafi influence despite warnings by some liberals such as former Culture Minister Gaber Asfour that the Salafi presence is dangerous and poses a threat to society. The government has at times adopted policies that were intended to appease the Salafists, but there are signs that the Sisi government is moving to constrain Salafi activity. The state's patience with the ultraconservatives appears to be wearing thin; it remains to be seen whether the hard-line Salafi preachers will be the next target of the government clampdown on free speech.

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