The head of Egypt’s top educational institution is facing criticism from fellow Islamic leaders after he declared his intention to bar women wearing face veils from attending class. Cleric Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi made the announcement last week after he ordered a student at a middle school he was visiting to remove her face veil, according to the Associated Press. Tantawi reportedly told the young woman that the covering “has nothing to do with Islam” and said he would formally ban face veils from the al-Azhar system of schools and universities he leads.
While hijabs or headscarves are commonly worn by Egyptian women, the face veil called the niqab is worn by a minority of women who practice a more conservative form of Islam. Tantawi’s supporters argue that a ban on the niqab will serve as both a security precaution making students easier to identify and as a counter to religious extremism. Scholar Abdel Moati Bayoumi, who works at a research center affiliated with al-Azhar, told the AP, “We all agree that niqab is not a religious requirement. Taliban forces women to wear the niqab… The phenomenon is spreading.”
Others have spoken out against the potential ban, arguing that wearing the niqab is a matter of religious freedom. Shaikh Ali Abu al-Hasan, former head of the Fatwa Council at Cairo’s Islamic Studies Institute, said women should be allowed to wear the niqab even though it is not required by Islam, reports Al Jazeera. Parliament member Hamdi Hassan, who belongs to Egypt’s opposition group Muslim Brotherhood, also disagreed with the ban and called on Tantawi to resign his post as head of the al-Azhar schools, according to Agence France-Presse.
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights representative Husam Bahgat told Al Jazeera that the Egyptian government’s recent efforts to discourage wearing of the niqab–including largely unsuccessful attempts to ban female preachers, nurses and doctors from wearing it–are discriminatory towards women. Students who wear the niqab “are barred from government subsidized housing and nutrition because they are considered extremists,” he said.
Security officials at the al-Azhar institution, which includes middle and high schools and universities, told the AP they have been ordered not to admit female students “covered from head to toe” into schools or dormitories. Groups of women students have demonstrated at al-Azhar and Cairo universities in opposition to the ban this week.