In Egypt, Muslim Women May Lose Right To Wear Veil

new debate is raging in Egypt over the niqab, that's the veil worn by some Muslim women that covers their face and body, except for their eyes. Debates over whether to allow head coverings have been the subject of debate in other countries, but now the practice is causing a controversy at Egypt's leading Islamic educational institution, Al-Azhar, which is one of the latest institutions to implement a ban against the niqab. To talk about the debate, host Michel Martin is joined by Al Jazeera reporter, Rawya Rageh who is based in Cairo.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we want to talk about another, and for some of us, an unexpected battle over the dress that some Muslim women wear, specifically the niqab. That's the veil worn by some Muslim women that covers the face and body - everything but the eyes.

For some time now in Europe, we've heard complaints from government officials, and some feminists, about the use of the niqab and also the burqa. In France, those complaints have led to restrictions, such as the ban on wearing the veil in school. But we confess that we were surprised to learn that the head of Egypt's leading Islamic educational institution, Al-Azhar, also tried to implement a ban against the niqab.

Many women students spoke out against the ban, saying it infringed upon their right to practice their religion freely. The ban was lifted by a court in Cairo, but the discussion continues. We wanted to know more about this story so we called Rawya Rageh. She is a reporter for Al-Jazeera. She's based in Cairo. She's been covering this story, and we were lucky enough to catch her on a visit to Washington. And she's with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. RAWYA RAGEH (Reporter, Al-Jazeera): Thank you.

MARTIN: Tell me, how did this debate over wearing the niqab start?

Ms. RAGEH: How it started is, in October, I believe, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, was on a visit to one of the schools affiliated to Al-Azhar and of course, Al-Azhar is the most prestigious learning seat in Sunni Islam and their schools are, of course, single...

MARTIN: Single gender anyway.

Ms. RAGEH: That's correct. And so he was on a visit to one of the all-girl schools, and he saw one of the students covering her face. And that's when the debate began. He got into a discussion with her, that this is not an Islamic dress code and that she should not be covering her face. And then, in fact, coming out of that visit, he issued a decision in which he said that the niqab should be banned in those single-sex schools.

And then the minister of higher education, Mr. Hany Helal, he followed suit and issued an all-encompassing ban in Cairo University, Helwan University, in essence all public universities, basically.

MARTIN: When the sheikh asked this young lady why she was covering her face even in a single-gender environment, what did she say?

Ms. RAGEH: Our understanding is that the argument was like, this is my duty under my religion to cover my face...

MARTIN: At all times when they're outside.

Ms. RAGEH: That's correct.

MARTIN: Outside of their own homes.

Ms. RAGEH: That's correct.

MARTIN: Well, why is this such a sensitive issue because clearly, this goes beyond merely a matter of personal preference? Because if it were merely a matter of personal preference, it wouldn't have occasioned so much interest. So, why do you think it's such a difficult issue, even in a Muslim country?

Ms. RAGEH: That is the question because this debate has gone beyond a personal struggle between a student who wants to cover her face, and a cleric who says it's not Islamic. It has actually come to signify the widening divide between the Egyptian governments brand of moderate Islam and a populous increasingly turning into a stricter interpretation of the religion. Its almost turned into a confrontation between a government that is largely viewed as autocratic, as corrupt, as yielding to Western values versus a population that - an impoverished population - that is turning to Islam as a solace, basically.

MARTIN: Do you feel that part of it is the back-and-forth travel - that perhaps Egyptians may have traveled to Saudi Arabia to find employment, and then they come back, and they bring other interpretations with them? But other people say, actually, that's - its not true. Its really more of a political statement in the form of a religious statement. What do you think is true, based on your reporting?

Ms. RAGEH: I would say that there are four factors, at least, behind the increasing use of the niqab in Egypt. And one of them is what I would call the return of the petrodollar families. There was a huge influx, in the 70s, of Egyptian middle-class teachers, doctors, engineers going to the Gulf. And as you said, as they return now to Egypt with the money that theyve made in the Gulf, they do indeed bring back with them those stricter interpretations of the religion, because in Saudi Arabia, women do have to cover up that way, but not in Egypt.

Another factor also is the increasing sexual harassment in Egypt. A lot of these women do say that covering up is their way of avoiding the increasing sexual harassment on the streets. Recent studies say at least 80 percent of women in Egypt have experienced one form of sexual harassment. And finally, I would say, the penetration of satellite TV. And this is an interesting dynamic. It goes both ways. One is the spread of televangelists, who preach a stricter code of Islam, and the other side is also the government support of more secular TV stations that put on little bit of sultry videos that shocked Egyptians, that shocked their morals. And so, they turned into, sort of like clinging onto their religion...

MARTIN: Theyre reacting against it, interesting. What's the state of place? So the sheikh tried to introduce this ban; it was overturned by a court. What happens now? Is the government appealing?

Ms. RAGEH: That's not the end of it. Its almost like the government and the students are playing a game of cat and mouse, essentially. The sheikh introduced a ban; it was overturned in court. But then you have multiple bans - you know, the ban on sitting for exams with covering your face, the ban on entering dormitories, the ban on female teachers to teach. So, there are hundreds of lawsuits now in Egypt over this issue.

So, it has not been settled in court at all. And in fact, the minister of higher education said that OK, we will respect the courts decision, but only each individual student who sued to be allowed to sit for their exams, or to enter their dormitories with their face covered, will be allowed. But everybody else, the ban continues.

MARTIN: That is another point I wanted to mention, is that there are those who argue that the niqab makes it too easy for women students to cheat.

Ms. RAGEH: Thats correct.

MARTIN: Because you dont necessarily know that the person sitting for the exam is, in fact, the person who took the course. So the question that I have - its just more of an American question - is that have there been women saying that the wearing of the niqab, if they dont want to wear it, makes them more vulnerable to harassment because it creates a context in which thats considered the norm? And have male students, perhaps, said that if women are cheating, then its kind of skewing the curve, as it were? Have there been any sort of...

Ms. RAGEH: What you just said were the - exactly the both arguments that were put forward in court. You had the minister of higher education saying, you cant wear it while youre sitting for exams because that makes cheating an easier thing. On the other hand, the women who are filing the lawsuits - that was exactly their arguments, that by asking those women to not cover their face, you are basically threatening their personal security or making it easier for them to be sexually harassed.

MARTIN: Well, what about women who dont want to cover their face or their hair?

Ms. RAGEH: It is a dividing issue because again, because as I said earlier, no one can actually establish whether this has a legal basis in Islam or not. Youre in a situation where women who dont cover their hair are divided themselves. There are those who say that this is subjugation to women, that -feminists who say that, you know, women should not be covering their faces, that there is no basis for this.

But then you have those who are saying, it is a matter of personal freedoms and anybody could wear whatever they want because if you tell me I cant cover my face, then the next thing, maybe youll tell me, you cant wear miniskirts. And so you do have secular activists who are defending the right of women to wear the niqab.

MARTIN: Im not going to ask you to speculate about how you think this will end up, but are you surprised that its become its come to this in a Muslim country?

Ms. RAGEH: Not really, not in Egypt. We are talking about the government that has always been weary of any Islamist thought. Most importantly, Egyptian society is grappling with increasing religiosity, if you will. And the government, I would say, is sort of getting fed up with that deepening divide and the stepping in to deal with it. So its not surprising at all for me.

MARTIN: Rawya Rageh is a reporter for Al-Jazeera, based in Cairo. She was kind enough to join us in our studios here in Washington, D.C., where she is on a brief visit. We thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. RAGEH: Thank you.

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