Comeback actress stirs hornet’s nest on hijab in Egypt

Actress Hala Shiha has changed her mind several times about her career and her attire, but her latest announcement has caused an unprecedented backlash.

al-monitor Egyptian actress Hala Shiha is pictured in 2005, before she decided to wear a hijab, Cairo, Egypt, Sept. 3, 2005. Photo by AMRO MARAGHI/AFP/Getty Images.

Aug 15, 2018

Retired Egyptian actress Hala Shiha's recent announcement on social media that she would make a comeback soon has stirred wide controversy in Egypt, rekindling the debate on the hijab.

Shiha, 39, quit her acting career in 2005 after deciding to wear the hijab, the headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women. In August 2017, Shiha provoked an outcry when she posted a picture of herself on Facebook in a niqab, the full face veil. Vowing never to take it off or to return to acting, she urged her fans not to share her old pictures as an actress so as "not to sin."

Now, after more than a decade, Shiha has had a change of heart. In recent days, she has shed her Islamic attire altogether in preparation for her return to cinema and the small screen. The move has sparked heated debate between liberals and ultra-conservatives in a country that has been polarized since the June 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi by military-backed protests.

A picture of Shiha without her headscarf, published on Aug. 8 by dentist Mohamed Emad on his Facebook page, quickly went viral on social media.

"Hala Shiha in my clinic yesterday; this is not an old picture," Emad wrote in a Facebook post above the picture that showed him and Shiha standing side by side, smiling broadly, giving the public the first glimpse of the actress without a headscarf in years.

Two days later, Shiha created new Twitter and Instagram accounts, posting pictures of herself without the veil. In one caption, she tweeted "strong independent woman from the beginning." Within hours of its creation, the Twitter account had gained thousands of followers, according to the BBC, but it was suspended by Shiha shortly afterward, when the pictures drew mixed reactions from supporters and critics. Liberals hailed Shiha's decision to take off her veil while ultra-conservatives decried the move, exhorting her to reconsider her stance.

"We applaud her; hopefully other women will follow," cheered an Alexandria resident on Twitter.

A critic, meanwhile, rebuked Shiha in a demeaning tweet on Aug. 10: "Who cares about an 'uncovered apple' except flies?"

Not only has Shiha been lambasted by hard-line critics, she has also been the target of a fierce campaign to pressure her into changing her mind, with some even offering cash.

"I'll pay you 300,000 Egyptian pounds [$16,727] if you keep your veil on," offered one Twitter user who claims to be a Saudi banker, on Aug. 10.

Osama Gaweesh, a London-based TV presenter with the privately owned Mekameleen Channel, which is often critical of Egyptian government policies, tweeted Aug. 8 that removing the headscarf was "a personal choice." Nevertheless, he chided those hailing Shiha's move as "stepping out of the abyss of darkness" and "a slap in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood," warning that such rhetoric is "purely racist and a form of hate speech against all veiled women."

Liberals and ultra-conservatives also faced off in the mainstream media, focusing on whether the hijab is obligatory in Islam. Appearing on the satellite channel Akhbar el-Ghad, Salafi preacher Mohamed el-Sawy claimed he had spoken to Shiha's husband Youssef, a Canadian convert to Islam, on the phone. Youssef had wept upon hearing that his wife had removed her veil, Sawy told viewers. He added that Youssef had told him that he had married Shiha on the condition that she would always wear the hijab. Sawy lamented Shiha's latest decision and prayed for "her return to the right path." He urged her to seek forgiveness for giving in to temptation and allowing herself to be led astray.

In an Aug. 13 interview on the privately owned Mehwar TV, Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa said that Islam requires a woman to cover her body, save for her face and hands. He added, “No one has the right to impose religious views on others or to judge them."

Responding to the social media backlash, Shiha said she was excited to return to the screen and promised to play "meaningful roles." In a phone interview with TV talk show host Wael el-Ebrashy on the privately owned Dream TV on Aug. 12, she said that "no one but God has the right to judge me."

Film critic Tarek el-Shennawy blamed extremists for the commotion over Shiha's decision. "Losing Shiha to the liberal camp is a serious blow," he told Al-Monitor. "When a young beautiful woman decides to wear the hijab, she sets a precedent for other women who are encouraged to follow her lead." Shennawy cited several examples of other film stars, like Soheir el-Bably, who had thrown in the towel on their careers to turn to religion after falling under the influence of Muslim clerics like the late Mohamed Shaarawy or preacher Amr Khaled. He cautioned that returning to acting after many years behind the veil would be a “difficult feat.”

“Hala will need a lot of practice and rehabilitation, as the niqab is more than just a face veil, it puts a curtain on the mind as well,” he said.

Shiha is best known for her lead roles in films such as "Elsellem Wel Te'ban" (The Ladder and the Snake) in 2001, and in the Egyptian classic comedies "Ellembi" (2002), which became one of the highest grossing films in Egyptian cinema, and the 2004 "Aris Min Geha Amneya" (A Groom from the Security Entity). She has already received offers from film producers for new acting roles. Mohamed el-Sobky, Egypt's leading film producer, has reportedly contacted her with an offer to star with lead comedian Mohamed Saad in his new comedy, "Mohamed Hussein." It is unknown whether she has accepted.

Shiha's removal of the veil after a 13-year hiatus from acting comes at a time of rising anti-Islamist sentiment in Egypt, fueled by the government's security crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt outlawed in September 2013, and a media narrative that has since been in lockstep with the military-backed regime. It is a far cry from the days when Shiha decided to give up her acting career for religion, following a trend that saw actresses and belly dancers shunning the limelight for the promise of greater rewards in the afterlife. The rising tide of Islamic conservatism that swept Egypt in the '90s and early 2000s resulted in many men growing out beards and many Muslim women — including celebrities — covering up. 

This trend has now reversed, but the fight against religious symbols such as the hijab is not indicative of society opening up. On the contrary, censorship of the arts has never been stricter than it is today under the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In recent months, several singers and dancers have been prosecuted on charges of "inciting immorality." Shennawy is critical of the government campaign targeting artists and believes that "absolute freedom is a weapon that can be used to fight extremism and religious dogma."

"The fundamentalists believe they have the right to impose their views and beliefs on others and dictate what they can or cannot wear. We are facing a brutal enemy, and artists seeking to make a comeback after disappearing behind the veil for years are concerned — and rightly so — about the fierce backlash they may face," Shennawy told Al-Monitor.

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