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Movie star's lifestyle reversal sparks a debate in Egypt

Last Updated Aug 21, 2018 at 9:00 am EST

In this June 20, 2004 photo, Egyptian actress Hala Shiha poses during a photo session, in Cairo, Egypt. When Shiha quit the film industry a decade ago to embrace a more religious lifestyle and wear the hijab, Islamic conservatives celebrated. Now, in 2018, that she has decided to return to a more secular life, they are expressing disappointment, and a vigorous debate has broken out in Egypt. (AP Photo/Abdelhamid Eid)

CAIRO – Hala Shiha quit the glamorous film industry a decade ago to embrace a more religious lifestyle, adopting the traditional Muslim headscarf, or hijab, along with loose, long-sleeved clothes. The Egyptian movie star later was seen wearing the even more conservative face veil, or niqab.

Islamists exulted at her decision, just as they have when other celebrities took a similar path.

Now that she has decided to resume her acting career and shun the hijab, they are no longer celebrating.

The highly publicized reversal this month by the 39-year-old actress immediately ignited a storm in social media, the press and on TV talk shows, with liberals lauding her move as an exercise in personal freedom and Islamists mourning that choice.

Her case in many ways mirrors the larger conflict in Egypt.

The country has been polarized since a popular uprising in 2011 toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, ushering in a period of political domination by the Muslim Brotherhood, which won a series of elections — including the presidency.

The generals ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 after massive protests over his divisive rule and cracked down against the Brotherhood, outlawing it as a terrorist group. Under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the military-backed government has little or no tolerance for political Islam.

It is against this backdrop that the status of women is among the most debated aspects of Islam in Egypt, with the question of how they appear in public getting special attention.

Shiha, often cast in dreamy, romantic roles, sought to distance herself from the often- acrimonious argument over her decision to take off the hijab and seek a more secular lifestyle.

“I never meant to insult or offend anyone,” she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “Just because I took off my hijab, doesn’t mean I am against it. Not at all.”

“At the end, this is a personal decision and it’s my choice. I am an actress and I don’t want to be dragged into any political conflicts,” she said. She cited “personal reasons” for her decisions — both to quit acting the first time and to resume her career — and didn’t elaborate on what was behind them.

But a recent video posted on Instagram may have made things worse for the Islamists. It showed her flashing a broad smile and telling a hairdresser at a salon: “I came here to change my hair colour a bit. I hope it turns out well. I am sure it will be surprising.”

According to her father and sister, she only recently opened an Instagram account, with about 149,000 followers. In none of her photos is she wearing a hijab.

Since her decision, Islamists have been saying she has disappointed women and girls who had looked to her as a role model.

“There were many girls that trusted her as a virtuous sister,” ultraconservative preacher Sameh Abdel-Hameed told a private TV talk show. “But now she failed a large audience of young girls who followed her.”

Other Islamists appeared incredulous over her decision. But Shiha told the AP that she had no links to Islamist groups while she embraced a religious lifestyle.

Khadija Khairat el-Shatter, daughter of a jailed Muslim Brotherhood leader, wrote a long post on Facebook urging Shiha — “my soul twin” — to prove everyone wrong and appear in public wearing the veil again.

“Today, the rumours that you took off your hijab had slaughtered me with a blunt knife,” she wrote.

Mohammed el-Sawy, another ultraconservative, or Salafist, preacher, posted a video of himself in tears. In a quavering voice, he implored Shiha to repent. He also sought to belittle her decision, labeling it a “relapse” and blaming it on “worldly temptations.”

In contrast, prominent film critic Tarek al-Shennawy commended her for showing courage in the face of what he described as a “difficult society.”

One recently rekindled debate is whether wearing the hijab or the niqab is a religious duty or simply an option. Another is whether Islam’s strict dress code for women shields them from being objectified by men in a country where sexual harassment on the street is widespread.

Those who oppose the hijab maintain that Egyptian women are sexually harassed whether they are in tight jeans, a miniskirt or a niqab. Others say that peer pressure plays a role, with young women wearing the hijab to win acceptance in their communities while adopting nothing else from Islam’s prescribed modesty.

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

Shiha remains unmoved by how her personal decision not to wear a hijab has turned into a national debate with political undertones.

“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.”