That is not how everyone here views Egyptian President-elect Mohamed Morsi’s wife, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud — who, for the record, has publicly eschewed the title “first lady.” After decades of Western-looking presidential spouses, Mahmoud’s pious Muslim style and modest education have drawn scorn as well as support. Some fear that she portends a more dogmatic era in which the Muslim Brotherhood will roll back rights for women or force them to wear full-length abayas or face-covering niqabs.
“People say, get the abayas ready,” said Alia Youssef, 17, who was strolling Tuesday in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, her head covered with a scarf. “I’m not ready for that.”
The debate has made Mahmoud one more symbol of the deep divisions within this generally religiously conservative society, much of which cheered autocrat Hosni Mubarak’s downfall as the comeuppance of out-of-touch secular leaders. Those rifts have grown more stark as Islamists rise, and liberal and leftist activists lament that the country is not heading in the direction they envisioned during the popular revolt in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year.
“It’s not the attire. It’s what she represents,” said Omar Shoeb, 28, a former television producer, who engaged last week in a raucous Twitter debate — one he characterized as “elite squabbling” — about Mahmoud. “I dream of a very progressive Egypt. . . . A year and a half after the revolution, we’re going back 100 years.”
Others have worried about the image Mahmoud will project on the world stage. A column in the al-Shorouk newspaper suggested that while Morsi should shake hands with female dignitaries, his wife should stay behind the scenes to avoid scrutiny. Last week, a Web site that chronicles Cairo’s social scene posted a photo of Mahmoud captioned: “Is this the woman you want to represent Egypt?” The post was later removed.
But many forcefully defend Mahmoud for one key reason: In her khimar — a head covering that falls over the shoulders and past the waist — she could blend into an Egyptian crowd far more easily than her predecessors.
Even amid debates over the future of women’s rights here, veils, which are worn by most Egyptian women, rank low as an issue. Sexual abuse, education and female circumcision are bigger problems, as is creating government bodies that deal seriously with women’s issues, said Ragia Omran, a prominent lawyer and pro-democracy activist.
“We need to revamp all these institutions,” Omran said. As for the veil, she said, “as long as nobody’s imposing it on anyone, we have more important things to discuss.”