CAIRO — In what was called a first for Egyptian state television, a woman wearing a head scarf presented headlines in a newscast Sunday, breaking with a code of secular dress that for decades effectively barred the wearing of Islamic head coverings.
The anchor, Fatma Nabil, wearing a dark suit coat and an off-white hijab that covered her hair and neck, presented headlines at noon on Channel 1, one of several television stations operated by the state.
A vast majority of Egyptian women choose to wear some form of Islamic head covering. By Sunday evening, however, an online debate had broken out over whether Nabil's appearance might be one step in an effort by President Mohammed Morsi, a former leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, to encourage a more Islamic sensibility on newscasts and in society.
Veiled women have been presenting the news for years on private satellite television here, including Nabil. Nabil worked for a year in the Muslim Brotherhood TV network Misr 25 after she was barred by state TV from appearing on air because of her veil. With Morsi's election and the appointment of the new information minister, Salah Abdel-Maksoud of the Muslim Brotherhood, she said she was given the "green light" to come back to state TV.
Her appearance on Channel 1 was announced Saturday by Abdel-Maksoud, who told an interviewer that Nabil's wearing of the hijab would represent the "enforcement of the principle of justice in the field of media," in the spirit of the Egyptian revolution, according to MENA, the official state news agency.
At least three other veiled women will soon be appearing on state television, including a weather presenter, Abdel-Maksoud said, a shift from the standards established when state television was founded five decades ago. Though head scarves were not explicitly disallowed, in practice they were tolerated only for off-screen employees.
"Why is the veil denounced in Egypt while 70 percent of Egypt's ladies are veiled?" Abdel-Maksoud asked, according to the Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm. "It's a shame that veiled women appear on Arab and international channels while they don't in Egypt."
Under the secular authoritarians who preceded Morsi, state television functioned as a mouthpiece of the government. Until recently, state news media appeared to be campaigning against Morsi, with coverage that broadly favored the military leaders who have vied for influence with the Islamist president.
In a move that consolidated his power, Morsi forced the retirement of the top military commanders last month and nullified a constitutional declaration by the military that had stripped the presidency of much of its power.
Under former President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime, ousted in last year's uprising, female TV employees who wore the veil would be asked to take jobs off camera. Some sued against the policy and won, but a Ministry of Information run by staunch regime loyalists ignored the rulings, and enforced a de facto ban. Mubarak's predecessors followed a similar line.
The end result was that the faces on state TV mirrored those of the wives of the ruling elite, where the style was set by women such as the well-coiffed first lady Suzanne Mubarak.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.