During a visit to a secondary school a few weeks ago, Egypt's highest Sunni authority came across a teenager wearing the full veil. Flabbergasted, he humiliated the girl, asking her "Why wear the niqab in a class full of girls?!" He then forced her to remove it.
"Wearing the niqab is a custom, not part of religion", explained Sheik Mohammed Tantawi, long-time dean of Egypt's prestigious and ancient al-Azhar University, founded in 969 and considered one of the world's number one references in the teaching of Islamic studies.
Tantawi hasn't wasted any time. He's strictly forbidden students, pupils and teachers from wearing the niqab in the al-Azhar university and its adjoining schools. And it's not unlikely that we'll see the decision followed by institutions throughout the country. Sheik Tantawi's decision comes just after the Minister for Higher Education banned students who wear the niqab from living in student halls.
Islamic opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood has seized upon the move to vehemently criticise the government. Since the beginning of the week, numerous demonstrations outside universities have been staged in protest.
In 2001, the American University in Cairo banned girls from wearing the niqab on campus for security reasons, but in 2007, the decision was overruled by the Supreme Court. Girls who wear the full veil were thereafter required to identify themselves to a female watchman before entering the campus.
Niqab wearer stopped at the halls gates
“A concession granted to please the West following 9/11”
Ismail Alexandrani is a journalist and human rights activist from Alexandria.
The majority of Egyptians no longer trust the decisions of Sheik Tantawi. Given that the Sheik of al-Azhar is chosen - as are other top civil servants - by the government, people see him as an underling to the powers that be. So this decision to ban the niqab in universities is perceived as a concession granted to please the West following 9/11. The government wants to wash its hands of any hint of extremism. Sometimes they go too far, even when nobody's asking them too.
The authorities say they want to ban the niqab for so-called security reasons. But identifying girls who wear the full veil has never caused any problems in the past. They are happy to show their faces when coming on to campus, as they do in front of a judge, a state prosecutor, the police or at other point when it's required for administrative purposes.
Women who wear the niqab in Egypt are given a bad name because of a campaign driven by the media and decision-makers in Cairo. They're not allowed to visit numerous tourist sites, the private sector is more than reluctant to employ them, and public institutions couldn't be less welcoming. And yet, I know many women who wear the full veil, who are far more open and tolerant than some women who call themselves liberal."