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Egypt bans niqab in schools

Chiara Pellegrino

(ZENIT News – Oasis Center / Milan, 09.26.2023).- The Egyptian government newspaper Al-Ahram attempted to highlight the merits of this ministerial decision by briefly recounting the steps that led to it. In fact, this is not the first time the issue of the niqab has been raised in Egypt. In the 1990s, the same ministry had attempted, unsuccessfully, to ban the full veil for both teachers and students, arguing that concealing the face hindered communication between the two parties. In 2009, the niqab was also criticized by the then Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque, Shaykh Sayyid Tantawi, who explained that it was not a garment imposed by Islamic religion. This stance had led to accusations of supporting the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had declared a war on the niqab in France. Today, as then, the ministry’s decision to abolish the niqab in schools has been applauded by some figures from Al-Azhar, such as Ahmed Karima, a professor of comparative jurisprudence, who argues that the full veil is not mandatory but a matter of personal choice. However, there has been no reaction from Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyib so far.

In addition to banning the niqab for students, the ministerial regulation also regulates the use of the hijab, the headscarf that covers the hair but leaves the face uncovered. According to the provision, a student can wear the hijab as long as it is done voluntarily and her guardian has been informed. This specific part of the regulation was commented on by an Egyptian journalist, Amina Khairy, in al-Masry al-Youm: “We all know that, for a girl, covering her head has become a natural thing in most cases. You move from one phase of life to another, and wearing a ‘veil’ without any coercion or pressure is a natural development. It’s not about making a decision, or an idea that matures and is then followed by a decision. Moreover, more and more girls are wearing the hijab at the age of seven. I believe that the issue of coercion and pressure is not a problem because in Egypt certain customs were established in the 1970s, and questioning them today is no longer allowed.”

Furthermore, the columnist points out that proving the existence of coercion is not easy; in Cairo (not in the most remote regions or villages!), many schools, especially public ones, impose the wearing of the veil on female students, at least from middle school onwards. However, this is done discreetly and undocumented. In fact, it may happen that those who do not wear the veil are asked about their religion, and at that moment, the girl who declares herself a Muslim feels automatically obliged to wear it. As for the niqab, Khairy writes, “it’s a very important decision, […] because it is a sign that state institutions can affirm the civilized nature of the State.” However, the difficulty of enforcing this rule still exists: it may happen that those who should be responsible for enforcement, namely the teachers, are not willing to do so because they themselves wear the niqab or simply do not share the principle on which the regulation is based. She concludes with a provocative statement that suggests the presence of a radical segment in Egyptian society: “The niqab and other fashions may reflect corrupt or extremist thinking. A quick look at the street allows anyone who wants to understand to get an idea of the prevailing ‘popular’ trends.”

Al-Arabi Newspaper: A Blow to Salafists

For Al-Arabi, a newspaper close to the Emiratis and hostile to Islamism, the ban on niqab in schools “is the first step in opposing Salafists.” Former Egyptian parliamentarian Muhammad Abu Hamid calls on official religious institutions to play their role in the battle against the full veil because “the government cannot wage a battle on a jurisprudential issue without having religious backing, providing evidence confirming the absence of a relationship between the niqab, modesty, and Sharia law.” He accuses al-Azhar of addressing the niqab issue with a “double standard”: on one hand, it denies the existence of a connection between this garment and Sharia law, considering it a tradition, but on the other hand, it allows it to be worn in its faculties. “Banning the niqab in schools is a central point in distancing the new generations from the legacy that still sanctifies customs and behaviors not foreseen by Sharia law but inherited,” the text concludes.

Al-Quds al-Arabi Newspaper: The Government’s Goal Was to Strike Salafists

The goal of the government was to strike at Salafists. Al-Nur, Egypt’s main Salafist party, announced that it would turn to Egyptian justice and parliament because the decision “violates the Constitution and the reference to Islamic Sharia law in Article 2, in addition to the articles that establish the duty to preserve personal freedom.” The ministerial decision contradicts “many clear proofs” (adilla), explains a representative of al-Nur; scholars agree that this garment is lawful, if they are divided on whether the niqab is mandatory or not. This provision, he explains, is the latest in a series of attacks, including the decision to remove Quranic verses and hadiths, accounts of prophets, messengers, and Companions of the Prophet, from school textbooks.

Following the Path of French Secularism

Instead, Al Jazeera titled, “Following the Path of French Secularism.” Egyptian journalist Muhammad ‘Abd al-Shakur mocks the Minister of Education, who believes he can solve the problems of the Egyptian school system by banning girls from wearing the niqab. In a diatribe, the journalist points out that the decision comes just days after the French rule banning the abaya in schools. France considers itself a secular state, and hijab, niqab, and abaya are seen as contrary to secularism. Does the Egyptian Minister of Education of the Islamic State of Egypt, as well as the country of al-Azhar, consider Egypt to be secular to the extent of needing to ban the niqab? Al-Shakur sarcastically asks, adding that the problems plaguing schools for years persist: overcrowded classes, a shortage of teachers, low-quality education, the problem of private lessons used by those who can afford them, and the prohibitively high cost of foreign textbooks.

Regarding French secularism, Egyptian political scientist and columnist ‘Amr al-Shubaki also returned to the pan-Arab newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat with an editorial in which he attempts to explain the French debate on Islamic presence and the application of secular principles to an Arab audience. France, writes al-Shubaki, is the only country in Europe that refuses to interrupt football matches for one minute to allow Muslim players to break their fast during Ramadan, all to “protect the secular appearance.” The French approach “differs from the path followed by its European neighbors: no one in Britain or Germany would bother to prevent girls from entering school wearing a headscarf.” What would be the solution? For the political scientist, “it is not necessary for the state to become a defender of religions, but to give more space to faithful of other religions, in this case, Muslims, so they can express their religious culture as long as it does not conflict with the Constitution and the law and is not used for political projects, which would undoubtedly aid in the political and social integration process.”