Although all women at Maria TV wear the niqab, its executives insisted that the channel is not directed only at women who dress that way. “We tried to create a diverse mix of shows,” the manager said, with programs on politics, culture, medicine and religion. One program, called “My Kingdom,” focuses on domestic life and showcases embroidery, crafts and cooking.
Station officials declined to provide information about the size of the channel’s audience. But Aalaa Ahmed Abdallah, the manager, said she recently received a call from a viewer in Tunisia who complained that her country’s 2011 revolt did not improve the standing of Salafists there. The women of Maria TV “lifted our spirits to resist what is happening and to keep wearing the niqab and adhere to our religion,” Abdallah said the caller told her.
Maria TV’s staff includes 30 volunteers and a few dozen women who work there occasionally. Several have stories about discrimination in the workplace against women wearing the niqab.
Ingy el-Mantawy, an anchor, said she had been accepted to work at a prosecutor’s office before joining the channel. It was a prestigious position, she said, but when she began wearing a niqab, her acceptance was canceled.
The women at the channel say they find it ironic that the niqab is often seen as a symbol of oppression. “My freedom is Islam, my freedom to talk from my niqab, work in my niqab, go to university in my niqab,” the manager said. “So I am trying to bring across the idea that every human has a right to live and choose the lifestyle they find appropriate.”
During the interview, Islam Ahmed Abdallah stood up to answer a cellphone that had been ringing inside a plastic bag. After switching it off, he explained that it belonged to a former Coptic Christian his team had recently converted to Islam. New converts are not allowed to use technological devices during their first three months as Muslims, to prevent relatives or other loved ones from trying to make them reconsider, he said.
‘It’s just discrimination’
Makram-Ebeid, the Coptic woman who served in parliament, said some of her fellow Christians are terrified by what they see as a “wave of anti-Christianism.” But others are not.
Bishoy Wagdi, a 28-year-old banker whose father is a Coptic priest, said Islamic channels have long been used in Egypt not just for religious education but to promote Islamist political groups. He’s seen Maria TV on YouTube and doesn’t oppose it. “We are a free country right now after the revolution,” he said.
Mavie Maher, 26, a filmmaker and Coptic Christian, said she learned about the channel on Facebook, where she saw pictures of a presenter wearing a niqab.
Maher said those behind the channel have the right to their own channel. But she worries that, among both Muslims and Christians, Egypt is moving toward a more religious society. “We will have a generation who is very extremist on both sides, and the role of the state and the citizenship will have problems,” she said.
Maria TV officials said no men work at the channel, and men do not appear on its shows, even as guests. But male employees of the parent al-Ummah TV sometimes step in to help with the studio equipment.
Islam Ahmed Abdallah, the chief executive, said women have total control over programming. But he insisted on being present for all interviews with female staff members and occasionally interrupted to answer questions on their behalf.
Mantawy, the Maria TV anchor, said veiled women are unfairly scorned. Critics “have this idea that this woman who wears the niqab is backward,” she said.
In fact, Islam Ahmed Abdallah argued, many are quite accomplished. “We have scientists in chemistry, biology, physics,” he said. “We have even nuclear scientists.”
But Heba Serag el-Din, 27, a director who wore a denim niqab with jeans and high heels, said she still sees challenges. “It’s not about pre- and post-revolution,” she said. “It’s just discrimination, and it’s still happening today.”
Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.