Niqab in Egyptian universities: 'personal choice' or 'communication barrier'?

Niqab in Egyptian universities: 'personal choice' or 'communication barrier'?
3 min read
05 Oct, 2015
The recent decision by the president of Cairo University to ban the full-face veil (niqab) among teaching staff has sparked controversy among his counterparts, Islamic clerics, and students.
The president of Cairo University has banned niqab among teaching staff [AFP/Getty]

The president of Egypt's Alexandria University has stressed that wearing the Islamic full-face veil (niqab) on campus was a "personal choice", joining his counterparts in other universities across the country in refusing to follow the footsteps of Cairo University president who banned the veil among teaching staff.

Roshdy Zahran told Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm on Sunday that wearing the niqab, as well as growing beards for men, were all acts of personal freedom, as long as they "remain within the orbit of responsible freedom and commitment to academic traditions".

"If a university professor feels that wearing the niqab or the hijab is an action that pleases God, then that is their own business," Zahran said. "They have been working for the university for years and nobody complained."

Last week, with the beginning of the new academic year, Cairo University President Gaber Nassar issued a decree to ban all female staff from wearing niqab in response to students who complained of "poor communication" in class.

Explaining the reason behind the niqab-ban decision, Nassar told The Associated Press on Friday that he wanted to "cure the disease" before it became one.

According to Nassar, the niqab is especially problematic in language courses, where the cloth barrier of the veil hinders student-teacher communications, producing low grades and graduates incapable of enunciation.

"We are not banning the niqab, we are just regulating it," Nassar said.

Reactions

Nassar's decree applies only to Cairo University, yet officials from other universities across the country, as well as Islamic clerics and students, have denounced the move as discriminatory.

Presidents of public universities in other cities, such as Mansoura, Ismailia, Minya, and Qena, were among those who rejected Nassar's decree.

How can women be part of the public life when their faces are covered?
- Mohamed Nour Farahat

Mansoura University President Mohamed Mohsen al-Qenawi said that such decision would tarnish Egypt's reputation abroad, while Abbas Mansour, his counterpart in Qena's South Valley University, confirmed that his institution did not have any problems with niqab-wearing faculty members on campus.

However, Nassar said he had the support of the Grand Mufti, Egypt's top religious authority.

Constitutional and international law professor Mohamed Nour Farahat also backed Nassar, calling for the application of a niqab-ban law in the entire country.

"How can women be part of the public life when their faces are covered?" Farahat said.

An ongoing debate

The majority of Egyptian Muslim women wear hijab, a form of veil that covers the hair but leaves the face uncovered, unlike the niqab, which covers the whole body, head-to-toe, including the face. However, the number of women wearing the full niqab veil has increased dramatically in the past decade.

Niqab and hijab have been at the center of several occasional debates by advocates of personal freedoms and Islamist activists over the past few years.

In 2009, Cairo University banned both students and staff from wearing the niqab on campus or in the university's dorms, but the ban was later overturned by a Cairo court after a university professor filed a lawsuit.

Since the military overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Morsi following mass protests against his rule in July 2013, Egypt's security forces have launched a war on terror and a media-backed crackdown on Islamist groups.