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Egypt's First Lady Represents A New Image

Posted: Jul 03, 2012

 Editorial note: Mohammed Morsi’s victory as Egypt’s first elected civilian president—and first leader with a PhD—also brings the first traditionally Islamic First Lady.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn.--The world now knows that Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party became the first civilian elected president in Egypt’s long history on June 24. But this isn’t the only “first” that Morsi has brought to the Egyptian political landscape.

Morsi is the first Islamist to get to the presidential palace. He is the first Egyptian president with Mohammed as an actual first name—although Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat injected “Mohammed” into their names for Islamic flavor.

Also, he is the first Egyptian president to hold a PhD degree, which he earned in engineering at the University of Southern California (USC). And he is the first president to win a competitive election, where Egyptians had--for the first time--the opportunity to choose from more than one candidate.

Her Fashion Statement—a Full Hajib

In addition, in a “first” that has garnered attention from the West—especially among Americans, Morsi’s wife, as the First Lady, is also the first to wear an abaya—traditional Islamic dress and full coverage hijab.

Her name is Najla Mahmoud. Born in Cairo in 1962, she is Mohammad Morsi's first cousin (don’t panic, they do it in Texas) and married Morsi in 1979. The couple has four sons and a daughter.

Egypt’s new First Lady lived in the United States with her husband while he studied at USC. She has been an active member of the Brotherhood for many years running multiple charity projects, particularly in the field of education, and she worked as a translator at the same time.

Even by Egyptian standards she is a very different First Lady.

The new First Lady received a fair amount of ridiculous coverage from Egyptian liberal media and so-called secular Egyptians. Some even questioned if she is “really fit to represent Egypt.” Her image has become the subject of a rancorous debate on Egyptian websites and in newspapers.

A column in the newspaper El Fagr asked sarcastically, “How could she receive world leaders and still adhere to her traditional Islamic standards of modesty?” The paper added, “Don’t look at her. Don’t shake hands with her,” in stating that her new status presents a “comic scenario.”

Traditionally the role of the Egyptian First Lady is an invisible one. The past First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, lived in Hosni Mubarak’s shadow, running charity organizations and meeting dignitaries.

According to a recent interview in Egyptian press, the new First Lady does not even like the title. She told the media, “Islam taught us that the next president is the first servant of Egypt, this means that his wife is also the servant of Egypt. Any title that has been forced upon us must be gone with. It should disappear from my political and social dictionary.”

Everybody’s Mother

Mahmoud sees herself first in the woman’s foremost traditional role as a mother. She admitted that she preferred to be called ‘Em Ahmed’ (mother of Ahmed, her eldest son) above any other title.

Former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, though, would have never accepted being called Em Gamal, (her eldest son). She was, however, grooming him to take over Egypt after her ailing husband displayed deep signs of political boredom.

Even though former First Ladies spent fortunes on their appearance, appealing to many western fashions statements, the new First Lady will have none of it. The only fashion statement she has to make is the hijab and the full dress Islamic dress. This will be the one representation of post-revolution Egypt.

And that won’t be too difficult for most Egyptian women to follow. Muslims as well as Christians—in fact, most women in Egypt, regardless of religion, already wear some kind of head covering.

Dalia Saber, 36, an engineering lecturer, said of Najla Mahmoud, “She looks like my mother. She looks like my husband’s mother. She probably looks like your mother and everybody else’s.”

Yet, the West has a fixation about traditional Muslim attire and the hijab. That criticism is that the hajib is mostly a colonial style and a symbol of oppression—as if the multibillion-dollar fashion industry weren’t dictating what western women should wear.

Racist attitude towards Muslim women wearing traditional dress is often hidden behind the veil of secularism.

“I wear a hijab to be part of a face, not a part of fashion,” explained a young French Muslim woman responding to a question of why she covers her beautiful face.

Najla Mahmoud, the first hijabi-wearing First Lady of Egypt, may just bring a new attitude toward Muslims women, and a new look toward Muslim fashion.

 Ahmed Tharwat, is producer and host of the television program, “BelAhdan” (in English: “With Open Arms”) based in Minneapolis, Minn. Tharwat is a professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas.

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