Ban on niqab-wearing lecturers sparks academic row

A ban by Cairo University, Egypt’s biggest public higher education institution, on women lecturers wearing the full-face veil – the niqab – has sparked controversy among academics in this mostly Muslim country.

The university’s board has ordered niqab-wearing lecturers to remove the veil from the face while inside classrooms, saying the move is aimed at improving teacher communication with students.

The ban is the first of its kind at Egypt’s 42 public and private universities.

“This decision is aimed at regulating the education process after receiving complaints from students that they cannot communicate well with the teacher wearing the niqab,” said the president of Cairo University, Gaber Nassar.

“The student has the right to see the face of the teacher so that there would be direct communication between them. For example, how can a niqab wearer teach a foreign language, which is linked to movements of the face and lips?”

Nassar, a law professor, denied claims that the ban is unlawful. “This decision applies to teachers only inside lecture halls. Wearing the niqab, for female teachers and students, continues to be allowed on the campus.”

It is not known how many lecturers at Cairo University wear the niqab. However, Nassar said that the majority of them had signed a written pledge to comply with the order.

Mixed response

The step has drawn mixed responses from Egypt’s academic community.

“If women who do not wear the veil have the right to put on what they like, niqab wearers should have the same right,” said Yehia el-Gazaz, a professor at the state-run Helwan University and a member of the pro-university independence movement March 9.

“This decision [ban] violates human rights. The niqab represents a form of personal freedom,” added el-Gazaz. “There should be a kind of debate on how students and teachers can better communicate rather than issuing such an arbitrary decision.”

Mohamed Kamal, a professor of ethics at the state-run Beni-Suef University, condemned the ban as discriminatory. “It contradicts constitutional articles that provide for freedom and equality without any discrimination,” Kamal told the independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.

“It would have been better if the university had focused on tackling the real problems of education in Egypt, instead of causing a social stir with a useless decision.”

Local media have reported that some niqab-clad lecturers at Cairo University plan to challenge the ban in court.

Meanwhile, several academics have voiced support for the niqab ban. One of them is Amna Nusseir, a woman professor of Islamic philosophy at Al-Azhar University, a state-run Islamic seminary.

“This decision is wise. Concealing the face behind the niqab curbs students’ benefit from their teachers. The face plays a big role in imparting information,” Nusseir said. “Islam does not impose or approve wearing the niqab.”

In fact, Muslim clerics are divided over the attire. Some clergymen say it is obligatory in Islam. Others regard it as an un-Islamic costume related to desert societies.

The majority of Egypt’s Muslim women appear in public donning the hijab, a veil that covers the head and chest but not the face.

In recent years, however, ultra-conservative women in Egypt have shifted to the niqab amid a warning from secularists that the outfits can be exploited in unlawful acts.