CAIRO — The only visible female face in the Cairo-based studio of a new Islamic TV channel for women is that of a puppet. The human stars are all veiled from head to toe, with only their eyes showing.
Maria TV is run primarily by women. They operate cameras, present shows and interview female guests ranging from doctors to students of Islamic theology. But they cannot show their faces during the broadcasts, and no men are allowed on air during the female programming, not even for phone-ins.
Shrouded in long flowing black robes and scarves known as niqabs, with black gloves to match – the women are distinguishable only by their voices and the slits for their eyes.
The channel, which was launched on Saturday to coincide with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, is the brainchild of Ahmed Abdallah as part of a broader effort to expand his religious pan-Arab satellite station Ummah TV.
The shows range from beauty programs where presenters simply discuss make-up tricks without actually showing any to shows about medicine and marriage. The puppet is used in a satirical show that pokes fun at major news stories.
"Even if you have the whole house lit with candles, do not be upset when your husband comes home from a long day at work and does not notice," said Abeer Shahin, the presenter of a show called "First Year of Marriage."
Abdallah, known by his nickname Abu Islam, said his goal is to show women that they do not have to reveal their beauty to the world in order to be seen.
"I am broadcasting a new era for women who wear niqab, for a new kind of woman," said Abdallah, who wore a traditional white Egyptian robe for men known as a galabeya.
That effort mirrors the cultural changes under way in Egypt since conservative Muslims rose to power after Hosni Mubarak's secular regime was ousted during last year's revolution.
Islamists had been heavily repressed for decades, with hundreds jailed as opposition figures.
Ummah TV was raided multiple times by Mubarak's security forces and financial troubles forced it to shut down in 2008. Abu Islam himself was detained at least four times, the longest being 22 days.
The station relaunched last year while the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafis emerged as the most influential political force in post-Mubarak Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi became Egypt's first freely elected president, although the military, which assumed power in the transition, has tried to curb his powers along with the Islamist influence.
Earlier this year, Ummah TV was raided by military police who took cameras and left the office in shambles, said Abu Islam.
Conservative Islam and its most visible hallmark, the niqab, appear to be on the rise on Egypt's cultural scene as well, and the launch of Maria TV is an attempt to cater to that growing segment of society.
A decade ago, the niqab was rarely seen in Egypt and it remains a minority fashion. Most women wear a scarf that covers the hair but not the face.
Still, it has become normal in Egypt to see women wearing billowing black robes that cloak the body's shape teaching at universities, working in offices, strolling along the Nile River or riding on motorcycles behind their husbands.
Maria TV airs six hours a day on Ummah TV, which Abu Islam first launched with the help of donations in 2006. The women film their shows at Ummah's studios in a second-floor apartment of an old building overlooking one of Cairo's biggest mosques in Abbasiya Square.
The white-haired, white-bearded Abdallah called Maria TV a victory for women who wear the niqab "after years of discrimination and injustice."
Many of these women are outspoken in defending their beliefs despite criticism that they are oppressed and cloistered by patriarchal traditions.
"As with everything, we got positive and negative reactions," said Islam Ahmed Abdallah, the station director's son. "But whatever. We're on our way."
Executive producer, Aalaa Ahmed, who is also Abu Islam's daughter, defended the channel, saying it was time for a female team to present something for women by women.
"I am reaching a sector of society has never been reached out to before," she said.
Maria TV is named after the Coptic Christian slave given to the Prophet Muhammad, whom he married and freed.
"I want to give children the ability to see these women and say `I want to be like that'... to create a generation that wants this and wants to be like this," Abu Islam said.