When an Egyptian actress sheds the veil, what message does it send?
After giving up acting and wearing the hijab for 12 years, Egyptian actress Hala Shiha said she was taking off the veil and would return to acting. More than a social phenomenon, Shiha’s act has political implications that especially ruffled the Muslim Brotherhood’s worldview.
Shiha was a weighty reference in a social transformation that touched many women in Egypt but who reversed their decision of wearing the hijab following political changes in Egypt since 2011.
The actress told Egyptian television presenter Wael al-Ibrashi that she wanted to relaunch her career because she felt she had a lot to give to her art. She said the hijab and niqab did not define women, ethically speaking, and that her decision to wear the hijab was personal and that her decision to give it up was personal, too.
Whether intentional or not, Shiha’s decision laid bare a lengthy period of political manipulation and manoeuvring in political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood said the actress’s decision to take off the hijab was a strong symbolic blow to its social achievements.
The Muslim Brotherhood conflates wearing of hijab or niqab with adherence to religious duties. The Brotherhood uses the wearing of the veil as a measure of social encroachment. Many political Islamist groups said the spread of wearing the hijab in Muslim societies was a sign of their success in infiltrating them and have striven to generalise the experience. Every time a popular figure joined their cause, they would claim that was as proof of Islamist discourse.
However, when a well-known person rejected the Islamists’ narrative, the Brotherhood would counterattack, using ad hominem arguments and claiming the person was no longer believable or influential.
Shiha’s case is reminiscent of developments in Iran in 2009 when women defied the mullahs and removed their hijabs in public as a sign of liberation — not from religion per se but from governmental oppression. For the Iranian regime, the hijab was the outer symbol of its control over Iranian society.
For the Muslim Brotherhood, the hijab was an extension of an ideology that began with the writings of the group’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, which seek to control the thinking of its followers. The hijab became a symbol of that control. When it spreads, the ideology grows. When it disappears, the ideology loses ground.
The Brotherhood is not worried about the number of followers wearing the hijab as much as it is concerned when well-known converts to its ideology shed the teachings of the organisation.
Unfortunately for the Muslim Brotherhood, recent days have seen a tendency among its female adepts to change, not as a sign of religious defiance but as a sign of distaste with the Brotherhood’s stances.
For decades, the Brotherhood used religious arguments to impose the hijab as an instrument of control not to be challenged. It used all means to impose it on Egyptian society so much so that it has become rare to find active opponents to the movement.
The Brotherhood, for example, used Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war with Israel to argue that the direct causes of the defeat were the fact that the society swerved from Allah’s virtuous path and that Egyptian women abandoned Islamic garb.
The Muslim Brothers could not hide their anger and rancour towards Shiha. They considered her abandoning the hijab as a major blow, particularly because they had previously hammered her adopting the hijab as a definitive sign of their victory. The Brothers had promoted the veiled actress as a model for female believers.
Shiha was a rising star of Egyptian cinema in the mid-2000s. In 2004, she was at the top of her popularity when she starred with Adel Imam in “Arees Menn Gehha Amneya” (“A Groom from the Security Entity”), one of his most successful films, but unexpectedly announced her retirement from acting and disappeared from public view. Shiha was a long-time friend of Khadija el-Shater, the daughter of Khairat el-Shater, a Muslim Brotherhood figure. Both women were active in promoting the Brotherhood.
Shiha’s announcement that she was removing her veil and returning to acting must have been a shock to the Brotherhood. Khadija el-Shater posted on her Facebook page that: “Hala, today the rumour of you abandoning the hijab slew me. Today all of Allah’s devotees are crying and their hearts are bleeding sadness. They’re hoping that the rumour is false. Lights and demons are waiting for you outside their circle. This world is transient, full of seduction and misguiding lustre. Do come out and show the world your hijab and beautiful heart. I’m convinced that you’ll never be lost again.”
Proselytising Brotherhood activist Mohamed Shuman declared: “I considered Hala a model for me and my daughter. Shame!”
Salafist activist Mohamed el-Sawi published a video clip of himself crying and praying to Allah to return Shiha to her senses.
The Brotherhood has considered the art scene in Egypt as anti-Islamic so every artist they recruited to their cause represented important publicity material. Despite the Brotherhood’s attempts, however, the veil is slowly being lifted on the artificially imposed value system of the merchants of religion.