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October 5, 2009

Egypt bans face veils in schools

POLITICS/RELIGION - In Egypt today the country's top Islamic cleric announced plans to ban students wearing face veils at al-Azhar schools, considered to be the 'Ivy League' of Sunni Islam learning institutes.

Girls covering their their heads, wearing niqabs or wearing head-to-toe burqas will be barred (by security guards) from entering school grounds for the middle schools, high schools and even university dormitories in Cairo. Students failing to follow the new policy will face expulsion.

According to anonymous official the new rule is for security reasons, saying the schools are worried about ultraconservative Muslim extremists sneaking in with bomb making equipment under bulky clothing.

Most Egyptian women wear the headscarf, but only a few wear a niqab, which covers the whole face.

Most Islamic scholars say the face veil is not a requirement but is merely a custom that dates back to ancient tribal, nomadic societies living in the Arabian desert.

It should also be noted in Christianity, women are likewise expected to go out in public with their hair covered for the sake of modesty, but very few Christians still follow that rule.

Earlier this week Sheik of al-Azhar Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi told a middle school student in a class he was visiting to take off her niqab, telling her the niqab "has nothing to do with Islam and is only a custom".

He then announced he would soon issue an order banning girls from entering al-Azhar schools wearing the niqab. "Niqab has nothing to do with Islam...I know about religion better than you and your parents," the cleric was quoted as saying.

Many Muslim clerics in Egypt are concerned about the spread of the old custom, saying its a trend being pushed by radical right wingers and it needs to be confronted.

"We all agree that niqab is not a religious requirement. The Taliban forces women to wear the niqab... The phenomena is spreading" and it has to be confronted, says Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a scholar in an al-Azhar affiliated research centre.

A ban on Egyptian nurses wearing full veil was announced last year, but has not been enforced yet.

On the opposite side of the argument are scholars who say "preventing women from wearing whatever they want is a crime"

An Egyptian court has already ruled a total ban on the niqab to be unconstitutional.

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