With Mubarak gone, Ahmed Abu Haiba no longer has to worry about the infamous SSIS (Egypt’s Secret Police), but his 2-year-old Islamic music channel’s future is anything but certain. Haiba’s Cairo-based 4Shbab TV aims to instill Islamic values in Arab Muslim youth around the world, but some conservative Muslims think that its programming is polluting young minds with “inappropriate” presentations of makeup-wearing women in music videos. A few key Gulf-based financiers have responded to these criticisms by divesting from the channel. A popular Arab sheik even accuses Haiba of promoting “American Islam.”
In a recent Al Jazeera documentary, Pop Goes Islam (embedded below), Haiba explains his reasoning behind the channel’s creation–offering Islamic values in the language of 21st-century youth–and notes that the only women who have appeared on his channel have worn headscarves and occasionally even niqabs. No female musicians or vocalists have ever been broadcast.
The documentary also demonstrates how the Gulf’s socially conservative influence is affecting Muslim women in increasingly conservative Egyptian society. Pop Goes Islam follows the daily life of Yasmine Mohsen, Egypt’s first hijab-wearing model. Mohsen approaches Haiba about her interest in hosting a talk show on 4Shbab, but their business partnership is interrupted by accusations of programming immodesty and subsequent withdrawal of financial backing. Independent of 4Shbab’s critics, Mohsen herself says that she receives abusive and threatening phone calls from random Arab men and women, accusing her of disgraceful behavior for using the headscarf as a “fashion accessory” and not for the intended purpose of respecting God.
Despite the harassment Mohsen receives and the criticisms she faces as a hijabi model, she continues on with her professional goals. She started the Veiled Models Association, a mentoring program for other Egyptian hijabis pursuing careers in modeling and the media. Members learn how to walk down a catwalk, pose in a photo shoot, and interview for job opportunities, all in a modest way. Mohsen thinks that modest Islamic fashion is becoming a trend around the world, and is anything but discouraged by the opposition that she, Haiba, and others face as professionals in the media and the arts.
Haiba and his all-male staff are more discouraged than Mohsen. They discuss strategies to acquire Egyptian funding for the channel, fearing that 4Shbab might “turn into Saudi Arabia.” Haiba tries to motivate his team and reminds them of 4Shbab’s mission–to attract non-religious or less pious Arab Muslim youth to a more devout path through morals and Islamic messages in music videos.
Throughout the documentary, there is conversation, dialogue, and debate about modesty, sexuality, and gender, but in the end, that’s not what struck me most. The film offers a unique, relatively non-romanticized perspective of what Cairo’s like, who Haiba and Mohsen are, and how each of them fit into a chaotic, yet relaxed city of 7 million. Both characters’ worlds are far from what I experienced when staying with a middle-class family in an outer Cairo suburb last January, and that’s another reason why I liked it. The outline of the story is about Islam, society, and 4Shbab, yes, but its through that frame where the real story pops.
Have you ever seen 4Shbab’s programming? Are Islam and fashion oxymorons? What do you think generally about the relationship between Islam and media? Or specifically about Islamic extremism’s influence in Arab media?