As Cairo’s al-Azhar University moves to ban the Niqab, Alex Court wonders why women can’t be given the choice in what they wear
Earlier this month, veiled heads turned in shock towards Cairo. The cause of the drama was the dean of one of Egypt’s biggest universities, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, as he told a middle school student to remove her niqab. His instruction was controversial, as it marked the introduction of a ban denying females the right to wear the face-covering garment in all-female situations. The ruling caused niqab-glad protestors to rally outside the university, and fuelled debate worldwide.
His decision is not isolated. Notably, a ban on hospital nurses wearing the niqab was announced in Egypt last year, but it has largely gone unreported. There was also the case of a veiled researcher stopped from using the library at the American University in Cairo in 2001. She took her case to the Egyptian Supreme Court, and, after a long legal battle, won. The court ruled that the total ban of the veil was unconstitutional.
The dilemma over traditional feminine clothing is not just a difficult issue in the Middle East. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has banned the burqa from French classrooms, and Jack Straw, the British Minister of Justice, has instituted a no-burqa policy in his constituency office.
Why do some want the cloth banned? One argument is the security threat: the fact that as people wearing the veil simply aren’t identifiable. This was well proven by veteran BBC reporter John Simpson, when he skipped from Pakistan into Afghanistan in 2001 disguised by a burka. He made the journey in the back of an open truck and managed to avoid detection by the Taliban simply by shielding his face wearing the traditional garment.
Abdul Hamid al-Atrash of the Islamic Studies Institute (ISI) in Cairo considers this aspect a major problem. He has said people who wear the veil “abuse” their anonymity. To prove his point he cited examples of men entering girls-only schools disguised by the niqab. Surely the problem here is security services on the premises: as people are forced to take off motorcycle helmets to enter banks, people should be required to prove themselves as female when entering an all-female environment. If the issue is not letting other men see your face, then why not hire female security guards?
A more pressing issue is the increase of Islamic extremism. Iraq is only separated from Egypt by Israel and Jordan, and with the Taliban recruiting throughout the Middle East, Egyptian authorities are genuinely concerned. This issue crucially involves the question of whether the niqab is a religious obligation. The Quranic verse related to this issue roughly translates as: “O Prophet! Tell your wives and […] the women of the believers to draw their cloaks all over their bodies.” Ambiguous enough, hinting at how so many interpretations have arisen.
The scholar Abdul-Moati Bayumi, from an al-Azhar associated think tank, is quoted by al-Jazeera as saying, “We all agree that niqab is not a religious requirement”. He also referenced the fact that the Taliban, noted for their fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur’an, force women to wear the burqa, and that Islamic extremism needs confrontation. While this seems more compelling, it doesn’t necessarily follow that those who wear the niqab are more militant: even if it was proven that woman who covered their bodies are more likely to carry out terrorist attacks, it’s unclear how banning them from wearing certain clothes is going to turn them away from their hard-line views.
Harsh criticism has rightly been levelled at this decision. Notably, a spokesperson from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights explained how even if the government intention is to reduce radical extremism, the only real result is that women are discriminated against, and this is exactly the case. In providing short-sighted solutions to the incredibly complex issue of radical Islam, the Egyptian authorities have over-looked the point.
The political party the Muslim Brotherhood are also opposed to this move. One Member of Parliament, Muhamed Baltagi, told CNN it was “unacceptable to violate private matters in this way.” This is the most compelling argument on either side. What gives the university’s dean the power to decide which clothes students are allowed to wear at certain times? Surely, in a democracy like Egypt, where many women live unveiled, it is a matter to be decided by the individual?
To add to these crippling arguments, Sheikh Tantawi could have at the very least asked some women what they thought about this issue. The entire council who finalised this decision was male. While this may not be a compelling point in itself, it clearly illustrates the ridiculous nature of this decision.
While militant Islamists are a serious threat which must be resisted, this resistance must be intelligent and organised. Moves like banning clothing are chauvinistic, discriminative and irrelevant to the wider cause. Let women choose what clothes they want to wear.