EGYPT: Islamic seminary dress code causes a stir

Until recently Mohamed Sayed, a Sharia or Islamic law student, attended lectures wearing a flowing garment and a pair of slippers. Not any more. Under new regulations enforced by Al Azhar University - Egypt's Islamic seminary and the Muslim world's oldest and most prestigious higher education institution - Sayed and his colleagues are strictly forbidden to show up on the campus clad in the garment known locally as jalabiya and slippers.

"This decision is absurd," an angry Sayed, 20, told University World News. "The jalabiya is a comfortable garb especially in hot weather, which is the case in Egypt. The same is true for the slippers."

Economics also favours the now-banned garments: "They are inexpensive and affordable to all students," Sayed explained.

According to the new dress code applied by administrators in different colleges of Al Azhar, students are required to wear either western-style shirts and trousers or the traditional costume of the seminary, composed of the kaftan (a loose ankle-length robe with long sleeves) and red headgear. "The latest measure is part of the Egyptian government's bowing to the western order to obliterate the Islamic identity of Al Azhar," claimed Sayed.

But the dress regulation has been welcomed by other students. "I think this code is right," said Hamdi Mustafa, who studies English literature and spontaneous interpretation at Al Azhar. "The enforcement of the code puts an end to the chaos of garments on the campus."

Mustafa argued that the seminary's students should welcome and observe the new dress code "to prove to non-Muslims that Islam is a civilised religion that values order and uniformity".

Al Azhar is run by the Egyptian government and is mainly concerned with teaching a curriculum based on Islam's holy book the Qur'an and the Prophet Mohamed's traditions. It is the only higher learning institution in the country where gender segregation is strictly enforced: female students receive lectures in halls separated from those of their male peers.

The university has branches in many parts of Egypt and even beyond in the Palestinian territory of Gaza. As a result of a 1961 law, new colleges of applied sciences such as faculties of medicine, dentistry and engineering have been introduced. Students from some 95 countries, with most on scholarships, are enrolled.

Khan Najuib, a Pakistani student of the Islamic Sharia, is not displeased with the new arrangement: "Though in the homeland I sometimes prefer wearing the Afghan-style jalabiya, I believe the new code is a step in the right direction as it somewhat gives this venerated institution a uniform."

Najuib, who has been in Cairo for more than a year, prefers to wear the distinctive uniform of old Azharites. "It makes me feel special," he said with a chuckle. "Attending a religious institution such as Al Azhar makes me feel proud of wearing its costume."

Rector of Al Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, recently dropped a brief ban on donning the jalabiya at university hostels after a protest by students. "The ban is limited to the campus," said Abdel Samae Abul Kheir, dean of the Sharia College affiliated to the university.

"This ban has been imposed after it was noticed that an increasing number of students attended lectures wearing the jalabiya and slippers," Abul Kheir told World University News. "Al Azhar students are not lower than their peers at other (secular) universities. They must care about their appearance. If they do not like the Western way of dressing, they have the option of putting on the Azhar uniform, which is popular and highly respected in the Muslim world."

Muslim conservatives claim that in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks in America, Al Azhar has been under pressure to westernise its curriculum and expunge books that allegedly promote hatred of non-Muslims and extremism. Egyptian officials have repeatedly denied the accusation, saying the development of education at Al Azhar is based on a home-grown formula.