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July 18, 2012

A debate over freedom, fear and facial hair

CAIRO — The morning shave used to feel less soothing than sinful to Ahmed Hamdy, an observant Muslim police lieutenant in southern Egypt. Letting his whiskers grow was a duty to God, he believed. But working clean-shaven was the unwritten code at almost any government job.

  "Every day when I shaved, I used to ask God for forgiveness," said Hamdy, 26.

   And so in February, a year after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Hamdy decided it was time to wear his religious identity on his chin. One morning after a vacation, he arrived for work as a bearded policeman and immediately became part of Egypt's messy struggle to redefine its relationship with Islam in the post-revolution era.

  All over the country, Muslim men are demanding to wear beards - and Muslim women the hijab hair covering - in police stations, banks, airliners, television news programs and other places where they have long been banned by law or custom.

   For many, it's a blooming of self-expression that was dangerous under a regime that equated Islamic piety with terrorism, when having a beard was enough reason to be pulled over by state security officers or to draw extra attention at the airport. For others, it's part of the rise of Islamist governments in the wake of the Arab Spring and a disconcerting intrusion of religious identity into the public sphere.

  "All of a sudden, the grip of the state is gone," said Ziad Akl, a political sociologist at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "There is a lot of Islamophobia in Egypt because Mubarak not only cracked down on Muslims, he created an image of them as devils."

  Now Mubarak is gone, and Muslims have more room to express themselves. "But a lot of secular people who still fear the Islamization of society are seeing beards in more and more places," Akl said.

   Perhaps the most shocking place to see facial hair is in the presidential palace. Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who assumed Egypt's highest office last month, is not just the first democratically elected president whom living Egyptians have seen - he's also the first bearded one.

    "As Muslims, when we see President Morsi, we feel just as the black people of the United States feel about Barack Obama," said Ali el-Banna, a lawyer and Brotherhood supporter. "Here is somebody who looks like me, who represents me. We had never had that before."

    Banna is one of the attorneys representing Hamdy and more than 60 policemen around the country suspended for wearing beards. Most of them, like Hamdy, have been taken off regular duty at a fraction of their pay. Five officers in Alexandria remain barred in spite of having prevailed in their court cases against the Ministry of Interior.

    "My supervisor said I couldn't wear it during work hours," Hamdy recalled of his first bearded morning. "Like it was a fake beard I could take on and off. It was absurd."

      This month, a group of male flight attendants filed suit against Egyptair, demanding the right to sport "neatly trimmed" beards in the cabin, as some other airlines allow. At least one pilot has joined their efforts, according to an activist working on their cause.

      Some female Muslim flight attendants, meanwhile, want to cover their hair. In response, the Civil Aviation Ministry set up a committee to study the request. One of its suggestions? Reworking the uniforms in a pharaoh motif, with the crown playing the role of the hijab, a traditional covering for the hair and neck of a Muslim woman.

  "The attendants refused," said Maysa Abdelhadi, one of the flight attendants who has taken part in the negotiations. "It is an unsuitable design."

   The issue is so difficult for Egyptians in part because the country lacks a strong tradition of individual freedoms or protections for them in the law.

 A new constitution is due to be written and ratified this year. But that process is likely to be dominated by Islamists, and observers here would be surprised if the document codified a wide-ranging tolerance for self-expression.

 "If the constitution were to say anyone can wear a beard, it will also allow anyone to wear a bikini," Akl said. "I don't expect it to go that far."

  Secular and Coptic Christian Egyptians seem to have conflicted views of the new visibility of Islamic piety. The beard is a powerful symbol to many, shorthand for the extremism they see in fundamentalist countries. But they also cherish the idea of a modern, cosmopolitan Egypt where people are not persecuted for what they wear on chin or hair.

  "If a man wants to grow a beard, he should be able to," said Mohamed Ahmed, a 20-something systems engineer who was out with friends at a trendy restaurant overlooking the Nile. "But if the waiters here have beards, some people aren't going to come. For the owner, it's a business decision."

  For Lameaa Mowafi, a well-known political reporter on Egyptian state television, the decision to cover her hair was an intensely personal one. One morning before the revolution, she came to the studio in a hijab and was immediately banned from doing on-camera work.

   But last year, when the crowds filled Tahrir Square and Mubarak was tottering, she took to the air, her hair covered, and has been on ever since.

    "It's a dream come true," said Mowafi, who broadcasts daily from the presidential palace and is one of several reporters who wear the hijab. "It was impossible to even imagine that a veiled presenter would be live on any channel in any part of Egypt. Now I cover the presidency."

               

Hassan El Naggar and Mohannad Sabry contributed to this report.

 

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