Tahlequah Daily Press

Get the scoop!

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.

 

1
Text Only
Get the scoop!
  • Affirmative action ruling challenges colleges seeking diversity

    The U.S. Supreme Court's support of Michigan's ban on race-based affirmative action in university admissions may spur colleges to find new ways to achieve diversity without using racial preferences.

    April 23, 2014

  • The waffle taco's biggest enemy isn't McDonald's. It's consumer habits.

    Gesturing to Taco Bell, Thompson said McDonald's had "not seen an impact relative to the most recent competitor that entered the [breakfast] space," and that new competition would only make McDonald's pursue breakfast more aggressively.

    April 23, 2014

  • Cuba is running out of condoms

    The newest item on Cuba's list of dwindling commodities is condoms, which are now reportedly in short supply. In response, the Cuban government has approved the sale of expired condoms.

    April 23, 2014

  • A 'wearable robot' helps her walk again

    Science is about facts, numbers, laws and formulas. To be really good at it, you need to spend a lot of time in school. But science is also about something more: dreaming big and helping people.

    April 23, 2014

  • In cuffs... 'Warlock' in West Virginia accused of sexual assault

    Police in West Virginia say a man claiming to be a “warlock” used promises of magical spells to lure children into committing sexual acts with him.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • The top 12 government programs ever

    Which federal programs and policies succeed in being cost-effective and targeting those who need them most? These two tests are obvious: After all, why would we spend taxpayers' money on a program that isn't worth what it costs or helps those who do not need help?

    April 22, 2014

  • Cats outsmart the researchers

    I knew a lot had been written about dogs, and I assumed there must be at least a handful of studies on cats. But after weeks of scouring the scientific world for someone - anyone - who studied how cats think, all I was left with was this statement, laughed over the phone to me by one of the world's top animal cognition experts, a Hungarian scientist named Ádám Miklósi.

    April 22, 2014

  • Trials of the Cherokee reflected in their skulls, researchers say

    Researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee have found that environmental stressors – from the Trail of Tears to the Civil War – led to significant changes in the shape of skulls in the eastern and western bands of the Cherokee people. The findings highlight the role of environmental factors in shaping our physical characteristics.

    April 22, 2014

  • McCain 1 House Republicans are more active on Twitter than Democrats

    Your representative in the House is almost certainly on Twitter. Your senator definitely is. But how are they using the social network? Are Democrats more active than Republicans, or vice versa? Who has the most followers on the Hill?

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Do your genes make you procrastinate?

    Procrastinators, in my experience, like nothing better than explaining away their procrastination: General busyness, fear of failure, and simple laziness are just a handful of the excuses and theories often tossed around. Now researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have added another option to the list: genetics.

    April 21, 2014

  • Do White Castle prices tell us anything about the minimum wage?

    The paper looked at how many delicious steamed sliders the minimum wage has been able to purchase over time. The point is that as it notes, in 1981, the $3.35 minimum could buy a whole dozen. Today, at $7.25, it could purchase just 10.

    April 21, 2014

  • Can Hillary Clinton rock the cradle and the world?

    What's most interesting to contemplate is the effect becoming a grandmother will have on Hillary's ambition. It's one of life's unfairnesses that a woman's peak career years often coincide with her peak childbearing years.

    April 21, 2014

  • Smartphone kill switches are coming

    Smartphones need kill switches. It's a relatively easy solution to the pricey (and irritating) problem of smartphone theft. But who would have thought that the big carriers would team up with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung and lots of other manufacturers to voluntarily begin adding the technology by July 2015? The cooperative spirit! It makes so much sense!

    April 18, 2014

  • Why do wolves howl?

    Of all the myths that dog the wolf, none is more widely accepted than the idea that wolves howl at the moon. Images of wolves with their heads upturned, singing at the night sky, are as unquestioned as a goldfish's three-second memory or a dog's color-blindness (both also myths).

    April 18, 2014

  • Biggest student loan profits come from grad students

    This week, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal government would earn roughly $127 billion from student lending during the next 10 years.

    April 18, 2014

Poll

How confident are you that the immunizations for infants and children are reasonably safe?

Not at all confident.
Somewhat confident.
Relatively confident.
Extremely confident.
undecided.
     View Results
Tahlequah Daily Press Twitter
Follow us on twitter
AP Video
Raw: Kangaroo Rescued From Swimming Pool Raw: 3 American Doctors Killed in Afghanistan Raw: Obama Arrives at State Dinner in Tokyo Raw: Obama Plays Soccer With Japanese Robot Raw: Obama Visits Meiji Shrine in Tokyo Stars Talk Guns N' Roses at Golden Gods New Pictures of Ship That Sank in 1888 Oregon Gay Marriage Ban Goes to Court SKorea Ferry Toll Hits 156, Search Gets Tougher Video Shows Possible Syrian Gas Attack Admirers Flock to Dole During Kansas Homecoming FBI Joining Probe of Suburban NY 'Swatting' Call U.S. Paratroopers in Poland, Amid Ukraine Crisis US Reviews Clemency for Certain Inmates Michigan Man Sees Thanks to 'bionic Eye'
Stocks