An impending religious edict banning women from wearing the niqab or full, face-covering headscarves in the schools of al-Azhar was announced by a high-ranking Egyptian cleric on Monday. Al-Azhar is the premier institute of learning for Sunni Islam, and the ban would extend to middle and high schools, as well as the dormitories of several Cairo universities. The cleric, Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, is the sheik of al-Azhar; he claims that the niqab “has nothing to do with Islam and is only a custom”. The announcement followed an encounter between Tantawi and a female schoolgirl, who refused to remove her niqab when Tantawi demanded it.
There has been considerable discussion of veiling in public spaces in Egypt over the past few years. In early 2008, nurses were barred from wearing the face veil and ordered to purchase new uniforms. This ruling was justified, again, by a denial of the religious significance of niqab; the headscarf, said a religious minister in the Egyptian government, is enough. Last month, an Egyptian mufti defended women’s rights to wear trousers in the wake of the Sudanese flogging incident, claiming that pants are acceptable as long as they are loose and opaque. And these are simply the discussions within Egypt; the debate over the veil rages throughout Europe and North America as well. Earlier this year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that burqas are “not welcome” in France, and openly supported a ban on women wearing the burqa in public.
Egypt is not the only country to consider banning the veil in educational spaces. Turkey is an almost entirely Muslim country, but its intense focus on governmental secularism caused a ban on veiling in universities as early as 1989. This caused a furor among Turkish citizens, and resulted in the educational disempowerment of many Turkish women. After all, 60 percent of Turkish women choose to veil; whether this is a “real” or coerced choice is beside the point, because with the veil they cannot gain access to universities. Rather than abandoning the veil, women abandon their education.
Under Egypt’s new ban, women who continue to wear the niqab would be classed as “extremists” and banned from government subsidized housing and nutrition. There were demonstrations against the ban outside dormitories in Cairo on Saturday, and students continue to agitate for the right of fully veiled women to enter the dorms. Judicial precedent does not seem to favor the ruling; in 2001, Egypt’s supreme court ruled that a total ban on the niqab is unconstitutional.
The situation is tricky, but the Egyptian government seems to be displaying a fairly blatant disregard for the impact of this ruling on women’s access to education. Regardless of whether the niqab is a custom or rooted in Islam itself, some women will not enter universities unless they are veiled. Thus a full ban of the veil will result in lowered recruitment and retention of female students. We can continue to debate whether the veil is actually empowering for women, but it is a serious issue if in the meantime women are kept from entering schools. Let’s not make it any more difficult for women to get an education.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.