EGYPT: Controversial ban on niqab in dorms

Egypt's Minister of Higher Education Hani Helal has drawn angry protests and lawsuits for banning the niqab or full face veil in women-only dormitories of pubic universities in this conservative, predominantly Muslim country. "I took this decision in order to protect female students," Helal said, adding that 17 men were arrested last year disguised as face-veiled women inside women's dorms.

"There is no justification for female students to don the niqab inside women-only dormitories," he said. No restrictions would be imposed on wearing the veil on campuses or in classes, he added, and niqab wearers would still have to show their faces to male security guards to check their identity.

"There is no law that obliges universities to employ female security personnel."

Helal's order coincided with a similar ban declared by Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, which is the Sunni Muslim world's most influential seat of learning. Tantawi, who is appointed by the head of the state, said the niqab was banned inside women-only classrooms and hostels at Al Azhar institutions. Female and male students are segregated at these seminaries.

"I am not against the niqab. What I am against is to wear it inside classes only attended by female students and teachers. This is extremism which Islam does not accept. The four schools of Islam's jurisprudence do not call for wearing the niqab," Tantawi told a press conference. "However, students will be allowed to wear the niqab in public areas of Al Azhar schools and universities."

Last week, hundreds of angry Islamist students and activists protested against the ban outside Cairo University, Egypt's largest public higher education institution.

"I am ready to have my identity verified but I will not take off the niqab," said Shaimaa Fadel, a medical student. Fadel said she had been denied access to Cairo University dorms because of wearing the niqab. "This is a matter of personal freedom. The niqab protects me from harassers. Besides, there are male employees inside hostels."

Earlier this month, a Constitutional Court in Cairo ruled against the niqab and upheld the ban on the costume.

"What crime have I committed, to be prevented from staying at the dorms?" said Walaa Fathi, a niqab-wearing veterinary student. "I study hard and scored very good [sic] in my exams last year. So why should I be punished?"

The authorities, she argued, should rather act against scantily-clad girls who arouse male students' sexual desire."

Islamist lawmakers demanded that both of the officials - Helal and Tantawi - be sacked as lawyers filed suits against them.

Islamist MP Mohammad al-Beltagui said Tantawi and Helal should provide leadership in heeding pluralism, accepting the 'other' and respecting freedoms. There actions were "disappointing", he added:

"The way Tantawi expressed his opposition to the niqab was offensive. Similarly, Minister Helal's position against the niqab contradicts the principle of personal freedom. Instead of banning niqab-donning students from staying at university dorms, more steps could be taken to preserve security at such places without violating personal freedom."

Mahdi Akef, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood - Egypt's strongest but banned opposition power - said the Sheikh of Al Azhar had no right to take any decision that restricted women's right to wear what they deemed decent. "There is no clear text in Sharia (Islamic law) banning the niqab."

But the ban has drawn applause from some Muslim clerics. "Girls wearing the niqab misunderstand Islam," said Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a member of the Islamic Research Centre, an influential arm of Al Azhar. "There is no clear text in the Holy Qur'an or in the Prophet Mohammad's hadith [traditions] recommending this costume. It is a garb related to the Arabian Peninsula."