Egypt’s niqab ban a religious tug-of-war

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Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, Grand Sheikh of the al-Azhar mosque in Egypt, last Saturday ordered a schoolgirl to remove her niqab (Islamic veil), whilst visiting a School. The influential cleric later decided to ban the wearing of religious attire in all educational institutions under his tutorship. It is believed that this is the first such case in the history of the Muslim world. It is a “religious tug-of-war that is as much a question of regional politics as of doctrinal interpretation,” argues The National, a United Arab Emirates newspaper.

The wearing of the niqab has become a hot topic among Muslims. A new controversy over the religious attire is tearing moderate and radical Muslims apart. Last Saturday, whilst on a visit to several Al-Azhar educational institutions, Sheikh Mohammad Sayed Tantawi, one of Egypt’s most respected imams (clerics), was “surprised to see one of the high school girls in niqab in class” reported Al Masri al-Yom, a local daily. The imam, according to the newspaper, allegedly asked the girl to remove her veil, after which he announced his intention to ban the niqab in all institutions under his Mosque’s tutorship including, middle and high schools, as well as several Cairo university campuses. Minister of Higher Education, Hani Helal, in what seemed like a coordinated move, also announced his decision to ban undergraduate students, enrolled in public universities in the country, from wearing the niqab. According to other sources, the police have received orders to prevent girls covered from head to toe from entering any of the Al Azhar institutions. The decision has ignited the ire of Egyptian Islamists.

For or against the niqab

“The debate over the wearing of the niqab is not really new in Egypt,” says Bernard Botiveau, a researcher at the Institute for Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim world (IREMAM). In 2007, the Egyptian Supreme Administrative Court ruled that a university could not ban the wearing of the niqab. If the statements, made by his eminence Imam Tantawi and Minister Helal, are to believed, the court ruling has either been abrogated or ignored. These two high-profile cases could point to the Egyptian government’s rising concerns over the niqab as another tool for religious fundamentalism. Even though no serious study on the subject matter has been made, several Egyptian and foreign observers in recent years have reported the rise of Salafi Islamism, described as a fundamentalist Islamic thought, which advocates the wearing of the niqab, among other strict demands. It is in this vein that the Egyptian government, backed by the most respected clerics, has sought to deal with the growing trend of fundamentalism by promoting a more moderate Islam. By circulating erratic proposals to ban the veil, “the Egyptian state, supported by Al-Azhar keeps blowing hot and cold on the limits of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood [Egyptian Islamist party]” Bernard Botiveau analysis.

A religious tug-of-war?

Sheikh Tantawi’s decision has not only been met with awe throughout the Islamic world, but has also captured both political and media attention in secular countries, where the “niqab” and “burka” have been the subject of seirous debates. Only last June, France launched a parliamentary commission of inquiry to deal with the subject.

Commenting on the Egyptian cleric’s move, The National, a newspaper from the United Arab Emirates, argued that “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 for Bernard Botiveau, the impact of such measures taken in Egypt must be put in perspective. “Egypt is certainly an Islamic state, but it has a long secular tradition behind it, and this differentiates it from many Islamic states. Today in Egypt, many citizens do not identify with the niqab and may feel threatened by this attire that seems to be stigmatizing their religion. It is not a religious problem, but rather one related to identity.”

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