Egyptian Star Returns to Film, Removes Head Cover

24 August, 2018

Egyptian actor Hala Shiha left the film industry 10 years ago for a more religious life. She began to wear the traditional Muslim head cover, or hijab, along with loose clothes that covered most of her skin.

Later, the Egyptian movie star was seen wearing the even more conservative face cover, or niqab.

Islamists praised the changes, just as they have when other stars took similar action.

But then Shiha decided she would return to acting and no longer wear the hijab.

The religious leaders are no longer celebrating.

Talk about the actor's decision immediately flooded social media, newspapers, magazines, and televisions talk shows.

Liberal thinkers praised the 39-year-old for exercising personal freedom. Conservative thinkers expressed opposition.

Shiha's case, in many ways, represents a larger conflict in Egypt.

A popular rebellion in 2011 that ousted then President Hosni Mubarak left the country sharply divided. The Muslim Brotherhood party took control of Egypt after a number of election wins. Its candidate, Mohammed Morsi, became president.

Then, in 2013, the Egyptian Army ousted Morsi after huge protests against his rule. The new military government, led by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group and banned it.

Today, the position of women is among the most hotly debated issues of Islam in the country.

Egyptian actress Hala Shiha in February of 2006. (AP Photo/Abdelhamid Eid)
Egyptian actress Hala Shiha in February of 2006. (AP Photo/Abdelhamid Eid)

Shiha has sought to avoid the argument over her decision.

"I never meant to insult or offend anyone," she told The Associated Press. "Just because I took off my hijab, doesn't mean I am against it. Not at all."

She said the decision was a personal choice and that she did not want to be part of any political conflicts.

Shiha's family members said she recently opened an Instagram account and has about 150,000 followers. She is without a hijab in all the posted images.

A recent video published on Instagram has likely upset Islamic conservatives even more. It shows her smiling at a hair stylist in a beauty business. She says in the video, "I came here to change my hair color a bit. I hope it turns out well. I am sure it will be surprising."

Islamic conservatives argue that Shiha has disappointed women and girls who had looked to her as a model of correct behavior.

"There were many girls that trusted her as a virtuous sister," clergyman Sameh Abdel-Hameed said on a television talk show. "But now she failed a large audience of young girls who followed her," he continued.

Khadija Khairat el-Shatter, daughter of a jailed Muslim Brotherhood leader, posted a long message about the issue on Facebook. She urged Shiha to prove everyone wrong and appear in public wearing the hijab again.

Mohammed el-Sawy, another clergyman, posted a video of himself in tears. He urged Shiha to admit wrongdoing and express regret.

Others are showing strong support for the actor. A leading film critic, Tarek al-Shennawy, celebrated her for bravery in the face of what he described as a "difficult society."

One debate that recently restarted among Egyptians is whether wearing the hijab or the niqab is an Islamic duty. Another is whether Islam's traditional clothing for women protects them in public from sexual abuse.

"There has long been a conflict between liberals and Islamists with the status of women always the battlefield," said political researcher Saeed Sadeq. "It is often a question of veil or no veil."

Shiha remains unmoved by the national debate.

"I am just at a different phase in my life now," she told the AP. "And I am happy that I am going back to acting."

I'm Caty Weaver.

The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

disappoint - v. to make (someone) unhappy by not being as good as expected or by not doing something that was hoped for or expected

virtuous - adj. morally excellent

society - n. people in general thought of as living together in organized communities with shared laws, traditions, and values

veil - n. a piece of cloth or net worn usually by women over the head and shoulders and sometimes over the face

phase - n. a period of time during which a person behaves in a particular way or likes a particular thing