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Debate rages as Egypt bans niqab at schools, universities

10/09/2009 02:32 PM | By Ramadan Al Sherbini, Correspondent

Cairo: Egyptian authorities have stepped up a controversial campaign against the niqab (a full-face veil) with a ban on the garb at schools and the university affiliated to Al Azhar (Sunni Islams prestigious seat of learning) and the dormitories of Cairo University, the countrys largest public university.

On Thursday, the Supreme Council of Al Azhar, which oversees Al Azhar institutions, agreed to bar female students and teachers wearing the niqab from entering girls-only classes and dorms. The ban came a few days after Mohammad Sayed Tantawi, Egypts top Muslim cleric, reproached a 12-year-old girl for donning the full-face veil at an Al Azhar school and said it is an un-Islamic costume.

The niqab is not obligatory. It is had to do more to traditions than to Islam, Tantawi told Egyptian TV. There is no need for those young girls to wear it inside classrooms.

His decision triggered a wave of protests in this predominantly Muslim country, fuelled by a similar move barring niqab-wearers from staying at Cairo University dorms. Hundreds of angry Islamist students this week protested outside the university. As a citizen and a God-fearing Muslim, I have the full right to wear the niqab everywhere, said Soad Hassanein, a veiled university student. Instead of flexing their muscles on us, the authorities should order female students wearing revealing clothes to be decently dressed, she told Gulf News.

Officials at Cairo University dorms said the move is made for security reasons. Allowing the niqab inside the dorms can disrupt security as anyone can exploit it as a disguise for terror acts, said an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for being unauthorised to talk to the media.

The ban has brought Sheikh Tantawi and Minister of Higher Education Hani Helal under fire. Lawyer Nabih al-Wahash filed a complaint with Egypts Chief Prosecutor against them. Meanwhile, Islamist MPs demanded both officials be sacked.

Tantawi and Helal should have given an example in heeding pluralism accepting the Other and respecting freedoms, said Islamist MP Mohammad al-Beltagui. Their acts proved disappointing, however. The way Tantawi expressed his opposition to the niqab was offensive. Similarly, Minister Helals position against the niqab contradicts the principle of personal freedom, Beltagui told Gulf News. Instead of banning niqab-donning students from staying at university dorms, more steps can be taken to preserve security at such places without violating personal freedom.

The ban on the niqab has, nonetheless, drawn applause from some Muslim clerics. Those girls wearing the niqab misunderstand Islam, said Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a member of the Islamic Research Centre, the influential arm of Al Azhar. There is no clear text in the Holy Quran or in the Prophet Mohammads hadith (traditions) recommending this costume, he added.

While admitting that wearing the niqab is a matter of personal freedom, Hafez Abu Saeda, a human rights activist, said that girls are obliged to take it off if necessity arises. Educational institutions have the right to verify the identity of their female students in order to protect them, he added. Some delinquent people may be disguised in the niqab to illegally enter a dorm or an examination hall to commit unlawful acts.

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