Face-Veiling, National Identity, and Higher Education
Part 2 – The case of Egypt
(read part 1 here)
As I mentioned in Part 1, the practice of face-veiling exploded in many Muslim countries only in the past decade or so. In most countries like Egypt, women traditionally covered their hair, though not always so stringently, but hardly ever their faces. In fact, even today most religious scholars will say that the Islamic dress “norm” is for a woman NOT to cover her face and hands. A very small minority of Muslim jurists say the contrary, and those usually come from the ultra-conservative branch of Islam, the fundamentalist Salafi/Wahabi school stemming out of Saudi Arabia.
In Egypt, the moderate religious establishment, largely represented by Mohammad Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar (the preeminent institution of learning and law in the Sunni Muslim world), has been feeling the growth of salafism. More dangerously, because they represent the official establishment, these scholars have felt paralyzed and mute, for few people really follow their orientation or even listen to them.
Then, last October, the occasion presented itself for Sheikh Tantawi to strike back. As he was touring one of the primary religious schools under his institution’s (Al-Azhar’s) authority, he entered a girls classroom and found a twelve-year old child with her face covered. He asked her, dismissively: “what is this you’re doing to yourself? Take it off!” The girl reluctantly did, and the Sheikh, it was widely reported in the press, looked at her and said “and you’re not even pretty; what if you had been?...”
Within a few days, as the controversy erupted and he had to explain and justify his views in interviews, he vowed to get the scientific committee of Al-Azhar to issue a ruling forbidding girls from wearing the niqab (the face veil) in classrooms. This was then followed shortly by the Ministry of Higher Education issuing a decree forbidding face-veiled students from taking exams and from entering university dorms and residences. The exam ban was justified by the large risk of cheating (other students, including men, sitting for girls; wearing earphones; etc.); the prohibited entry to the dorms was justified on security grounds (terrorists or rapists coming in). Dozens of complaints were filed, and soon the (higher) Administrative Court rejected the second ban (entry to residences), claiming that wearing a face veil is a guaranteed freedom.
As to the exam problem, and while waiting for the Administrative Court to similarly dismiss the ban, girls started to wear flu masks. Still they were denied entry to the examination rooms, which prompted more filed complaints… until late January when the higher court decreed that the measure was unacceptable as it violates the girls’ right to education.
A compromise seems to have been reached – for now – with the courts upholding the girls’ freedom of veiling their faces wherever they went, including during exams, while the girls accepted to reveal their faces to female officials upon entering examination halls or residences.
Al-Azhar, however, still insists that niqab is non-Islamic, and that in female-only environments such as a girls school or classroom, the face veils will not be allowed. Indeed, in one of his interviews, Sheikh Tantawi argued that most classical scholars do not require women to cover their faces in the presence of men; moreover, there are no scholars in Islam who require women to cover their heads, arms, and other parts of their bodies in the presence of women. Tantawi has decreed that female lecturers must not cover their faces when teaching girls-only classes…
Outside observers, especially in the west, may be surprised at the pettiness of such controversies in today’s Muslim society, but for those of us living within it, the question goes far beyond niqab, burqa, hijab, and dress codes. Not only does this affect school environments (and I have not even commented on the segregation of sexes in classrooms at various levels and different Muslim societies), it goes to the question of women’s rights, the behavior of men and women in public, and most importantly the influence of Muslim scholars, with the conservatives currently gaining the ascendency in many places and very fast!