Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar University has barred students from wearing face-veils, or the niqab, in female-only classrooms and dormitories.
The Al-Azhar supreme council said on Thursday that it has decided to ban students and teachers from wearing the niqab inside female-only classrooms that are taught by women.
The ban extends to women dormitories and to schools affiliated with the university. It said that the aim of the ban is to spread the spirit of confidence, unison, comfort and sound understanding between the teachers and their students.
The decision, announced by Sheik of al-Azhar Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, came days after he said the face veil, or the niqab, “has nothing to do with Islam.” His comments and actions have sparked an outcry from Islamists who see them as an attack on their religion and some rights organisations who believe banning the niqab violates constitutional freedom.
The Muslim brotherhood, the largest opposition bloc, has asked for his removal, describing his action as part of a larger plan to de-Islamise Egypt.
The explosive issue of how much of a Muslim woman’s body should be covered remains contested among Islamic scholars. The majority of scholars say the face veil is not required but is merely a custom that dates back to tribal, nomadic societies living in the Arabian desert before Islam began in the seventh century.
While a vast majority of Egyptian women wear headscarves, few wear the niqab, which is common in Saudi Arabia where the more conservative form of Wahhabi Islam is practiced.
The trend seems to be gaining ground in Egypt, leading to government attempts to ban the face veil from public institutions.