CAIRO // Two months after the head of Al Azhar, one of the world's premier institutes of Sunni thought, told a 12-year-old pupil to take off her niqab in one of the institute's middle schools, the repercussions of banning the Islamic veil that obscures the face continue.
Last week, hundreds of Cairo University students held a three-day protest over a decision by the Higher Council for Universities barring them from attending midyear exams unless they show their faces. The protesters held banners reading "Anything but my veil and my niqab" and "Where is personal freedom?" In another development in the dispute last week, Cairo University announced it would prevent teachers wearing the niqab from delivering lectures or supervising exams.
Hany Helal, the higher education minister, said the decision, which was taken by the Higher Council for Universities in November but announced last week, will be applied in all universities across the country. The latest developments come in a dispute that cuts to the heart of a growing gulf in Egyptian society between those concerned about the continuing rise of religious conservatism and those who believe Egypt has yielded for too long to western secularism.
Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, who is appointed by the president, went on to ban the niqab in Al Azhar classrooms and dormitories after he asked the 12-year-old to remove her niqab. The ban has since sparked outrage. Religious scholars have defended themselves and tried to explain their stance on the niqab. Shortly after the classroom incident, Sheikh Tantawi explained that he was only against the use of the niqab in women-only gatherings.
Like many controversial issues in Egypt, those on either side of the niqab row have resorted to the judiciary. The Islamist lawyer, Nizar Ghorab, has filed a case on behalf of 12 niqab-wearing university students with the Administrative Court, against Mr Helal and Sheikh Tantawi, several heads of universities, the Grand Mufti and the minister of religious affairs, Mohammed Hamdi Zaqzouq. In his lawsuit, Mr Ghorab said he was suing "the official religious institutions because they ignited the war on the niqab, first when the ministry of religious affairs printed thousands of copies of a booklet entitled Niqab is a Habit not Ritual, and then in the Sheikh of Al Azhar's anti-niqab stance".
Mr Ghorab said in an interview: "Covering the face and the hands of the Muslim woman is not a religious duty, but it falls into the realm of being sanctioned by religion and allowed by the constitution. Therefore, the niqab can't be banned completely because that would violate personal freedom as guaranteed by the constitution." Shortly after the Sheikh Tantawi incident, Mr Zaqzouq wrote in the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper: "At a time when newspapers are reporting that four women from America, Germany and Israel have won Nobel prizes, we are busy with a heated battle about niqab, in which we reduced Islam into a piece of cloth that covers the woman's face, erases her personality, and makes her lose communication with the society, which is a grave injustice to Islam and women, and is dragging women back to Jaheliya, pre-Islamic era."
A group of niqab-wearing students issued a statement last week following the decision to ban niqab-wearers attending exams calling on religious authorities and the government to "lift the oppression that fell on us" and demanding that "those who issued this unjust decision make special exam rooms for female students with female supervisors, and to be searched by female officers to make sure of our identity".
About 90 per cent of Muslim Egyptian women are veiled, although only a small minority don the full face veil. Egypt keeps newscasters who wear head scarves off its TV stations; the wife of the president Hosni Mubarak, Suzanne, and most female officials do not wear either the headscarf or the face veil. Head scarves and the niqab fell out of favour among Egyptian women in the 1920s and 1930s but began reappearing in the 1970s and 1980s. The evolution has been steady with more women covering their hair each year and more also wearing black body cloaks and lately covering their faces, except for the eyes.
The debate over hijab and niqab have been simmering in recent years. "Human communication is not complete without seeing the face," renowned novelist Alaa al Aswany wrote recently. "In the aftermath of 1919 revolution against the British occupation, the pioneer women activist Hoda Shaarawi, shed her Turkish burqa in a general celebration, in an indication that the liberation of the country can't be separated from women's liberation.
"The niqab comeback to Egypt requires objective discussion, which is not easy, because the niqab supporters are usually fanatics who rush to accuse those who disagree with them of spreading immorality and nudity," added Mr al Aswany. In January, a Cairo court will hear a case filed by several women activists against Safwat Hegazy, a fanatic Satellite preacher, who recently said that "munaqabat [niqab wearers] should ignore calls for taking off their face veil" and described as "whores" the women who are not veiled or wearing niqab.