x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Niqab ban rekindles debate in Egypt

Decision to forbid the veiled garment is seen as a signal from the government that religious conservatism is viewed as a foreign import.

Veiled Egyptian students walk in Cairo, Egypt.
Veiled Egyptian students walk in Cairo, Egypt.

CAIRO // The question of the niqab, the conservative Islamic veil that obscures the face, has once again entered public debate following two decisions in the past week to ban or restrict its use at Egyptian educational institutions.

The renewed controversy over the face-covering, for which government religious authorities have long expressed their distaste, came to light this week after the head of Al Azhar, one of the world's premier institutes of Sunni thought, told a young student in one of the institution's middle schools to remove her niqab. Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi later announced that the niqab would be prohibited at all Al Azhar institutions.

In a seemingly separate incident last weekend, residents at an all-girls residence hall at Cairo University were told that the niqab would not be allowed within their dormitory. Both moves represent a clear choosing of sides by the Egyptian government in a religious tug-of-war that is as much a question of regional politics as of doctrinal interpretation. Whereas conservatives believe that Egyptian society has yielded for too long to western secularism, many Egyptians, including the government, see the recent rise of religious conservatism as a foreign import from the wealthy nations of the Arabian Gulf.

But while the government has expressed its views on the niqab in the past, the events of the past week amount to one of the strongest official statements in recent memory, said Salem Abdel Gelil, the deputy minister of Awqaf or religious endowments. "This really is the biggest attack [against the niqab] because it comes from the official religious institution" of Al Azhar, Mr Gelil said. "And this is because the culture of referring to the niqab as an obligation has been widely propagated through Salafi satellite television channels," he said, referring to the austere branch of Sunni Islam practised in some Gulf countries.

But the government's resolute expression has not come without controversy. Monaqabat students at Cairo University, led by the outlawed Hizb Al Am Al Islami political party, are reported to be planning a protest in front of student residences today, according to the Egyptian daily newspaper Al Masry Al Youm. The newspaper also reported on threats by some students to file a lawsuit against Hani Halal, the minister of education, and Hossam Kamal, the president of Cairo University, to challenge the decision.

"This is something in my religion. Even [US president] Barack Obama said it was a personal freedom," said one 22-year-old medical student at Cairo University who wears the niqab. The student, who refused to give her name because she does not want to offend university administrators, said she used to live in the all-girls dormitory before she was abruptly told last weekend that she would not be given a room for the 2009-2010 school year. She was singled out, she said, because of a religious choice.

"Of course I am offended. I believe that I didn't do anything wrong, and that I'm being punished for doing what I think is right," she said. During a visit to Alexandria University yesterday, Mr Halal, the education minister, said he will stand by the ban on the niqab in university residence halls throughout the country, according to the newspaper Al Sharouq. Mr Halal cited security concerns as the primary factor in the decision, adding that 15 young men were recently caught trying to enter an all-female dorm while wearing the niqab as a disguise.

Yesterday was a holiday in Egypt, and officials from Cairo University and Al Azhar did not answer phone calls. But in interviews with Al Masry Al Youm, the presidents of Ain Shams and Helwan universities said they agreed with the sheikh's decision. Amn al Naser, the director of philosophy at Al Azhar University, went as far as to say the niqab should be criminalised, according to the newspaper. But religious authorities outside the government expressed varying reactions. While the vast majority of Muslim Egyptian women wear the hijab, a less conservative headscarf that covers the hair and neck but reveals the face, only a narrow minority wear the niqab. Even in religiously conservative Egypt, some who wear the niqab or promote its use feel under attack.

"The constitution ensures public freedoms. When we deny those women with niqab their freedom, we are violating the constitution," said Youssef al Badri, a noted conservative cleric. "Moreover, the constitution speaks about morals. So the minister of education and Sheikh [Tantawi] would do better to address women who expose their hair, neck and breasts. They cause fitna [schism or upheaval] and encourage sexual harassment."

This is not the first time the Egyptian government has fought battles with the niqab and those who defend it. In 2001, a researcher at the American University in Cairo won a discrimination case against the university after she was denied entry to an AUC library. As the campaign against the niqab escalates, those who wear it may find a new resolve. The government's efforts may feel like betrayal, said the anonymous student, but one that must be endured.

"There is a big difference between Egypt and some Egyptians," she said. "Even if everyone betrays me, I will know that God is with me." mbradley@thenational.ae