Headscarves still rare sight in Egypt's Foreign Ministry

Although a majority of Egyptian women wear the hijab, female applicants for staff positions at the Foreign Ministry feel chances are very slim for those who turn up for the qualification exams wearing the veil.

al-monitor An Egyptian woman waves her national flag out of the window of a taxi on the first day of voting for the 2018 presidential elections on March 26, 2018. Photo by GETTY/Khaled Desouki.

Topics covered

headscarves, egyptian politics, veil, diplomats, hijab, egyptian women, women in the workforce, women in islam

May 18, 2018

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry's regular qualification examinations to select new staff members — next scheduled for July — have sparked widespread debate on job prospects at the ministry for veiled women. Many Egyptians believe that veiled women are routinely disqualified no matter their qualifications and performance on the examination, which includes a two-hour written test in general culture and language proficiency.

In March 2012, when the Muslim Brotherhood began to dominate the state institutions after taking control over the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council, journalists were surprised to see a veiled woman among those accepted to take an introductory course at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Diplomatic Studies.

Mohamed Kamel Amr, who was the foreign minister at the time, was present for the opening of the course. In response to questions from reporters, Amr responded that there was no law that bans veiled women from representing Egypt at the diplomatic level. Shortly after, Amr Roshdy, who was serving at the time as the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, stressed in a statement that the ministry had always included veiled women among its staff and that he had worked with some of them. He added that their low numbers do not mean that they are unwelcome in the ministry.

Meanwhile, the last foreign minister under President Hosni Mubarak, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, used to boast that women working in his ministry did not wear the hijab. In her memoir "No Higher Honor," former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised this “secular move.” Rice described Aboul Gheit as “the quintessential secular Egyptian, distrustful of the Islamists and proud of the fact that a significant number of women in his ministry did not wear the veil."

Ironically, two months earlier, Mohammed Morsi, who was the head of the Freedom and Justice Party before assuming office as president, met with several diplomats in the Foreign Ministry. During the meeting and in response to a question about imposing the hijab on women working in the ministry, Morsi said the Muslim Brotherhood would respect personal freedoms and would not force anyone to wear any kind of uniform.

Yet the Foreign Ministry's standards became more in line with Islamic standards once Morsi took office. During the first year under the Muslim Brotherhood, a veiled anchorwoman made an appearance on state television for the first time in the history of Egypt. This same anchorwoman was banned from television immediately after Morsi's departure.

In October 2012, the training course's graduating class of new diplomatic attaches included only three veiled women. The images sparked public discussion of the underrepresentation of female veiled diplomats, which was met with the same usual tactful answers that the hijab is “a personal choice” and the "outfits of the candidates" do not affect the selection process, according to Amer.

However, it seems that the Foreign Ministry has not been practicing what it preaches. There is rarely even a single veiled graduate at the graduation ceremonies, reinforcing the perception that the ministry is following the lead of state-owned Maspero television and radio in keeping veiled women off the Egyptian airwaves.

A large majority of Egyptian women are religious and committed to wearing the veil in front of strangers. Eliminating veiled women from consideration for employment is discriminatory against a large segment of society.

Arwa Rida is a 26-year-old graduate of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, the main starting point toward a diplomatic career. Rida told Al-Monitor that she always knew that she would never land a diplomatic position because of her veil.

She recounted that during her university years, she heard shocking stories about veiled women who dared apply for positions at the Foreign Ministry. Rida said that some said that they were mocked by members of the interview panels because of their headscarves and some said they were actually kicked out of the testing room.

She added that these stories may have been exaggerated, but her fellow students firmly believe that veiled women do not have any chance in landing a decent job at the ministry.

“None of the girls who graduated with me was able to find a job. This is frustrating. If political graduates cannot work in the political sphere, what else can they do?” Rida asked. She added that she and many others have yet to find a job in the five years since they graduated, prompting many to put their degrees aside and look for an administrative job in any field.

Shurooq Gamal, 21, is also a student at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science. She concurred with Rida’s view, saying that the faculty’s veiled students feel they have little chance of attaining a position at the ministry, but this did not stop them from seeking out further training in the hope that it could open doors for them.

“Whenever this subject comes up, I am surprised by people who claim that veiled women are commonly appointed to jobs in the ministry, while in reality it is not the case at all,” Gamal told Al-Monitor.

Masoum Marzouk, a former ambassador who worked for the ministry for 25 years and left in 2010, considers the claims of discrimination against veiled applicants in the ministry to be baseless rumors. He told Al-Monitor that it is not true that the first veiled woman to hold a diplomatic position was appointed under Morsi. Marzouk added that he had the opportunity to work alongside highly professional veiled women.

Asked whether veiled women are underrepresented in the ministry’s staff, Marzouk stressed that few veiled women apply for positions at the ministry. He added that the exams are very difficult, keeping acceptance numbers low in general.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s media office categorically denied the claims of discrimination against veiled women. An official in the media office stressed that such claims are "mere lies that some groups try to promote to harm Egypt’s image.” He said a veiled woman was recently appointed in the last batch of diplomats. According to the official, the pretext used by some applicants who failed to pass the difficult exams because of “discrimination against veiled women” is baseless.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings