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Muslim women wearing headscarves and veils have been a source of controversy in some Western countries. Now it's an issue at what seems an unlikely place, one of the most prominent religious universities in the Muslim world.

In Cairo, the head of the Al-Azhar University recently followed other Egyptian universities in banning female students and teachers from wearing the full-face veil in classrooms or dormitories. Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi says the full veil or niqab has nothing to do with Islam. He says the veil is a sign of radicalism. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo.

PETER KENYON: Many Islamic scholars believe that full-face coverings are not a religious requirement, but the modern expression of tribal customs and traditions that predate Islam. Such coverings are common in conservative states such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, though not in Egypt. But Sheik Tantawi's pronouncement is seen as a reminder of the country's difficult position as it tries to push back against the growth of conservative Islam across the region.

19-year-old student Hela Omar is petite, slender, dark-eyed and otherwise indescribable because of her loose robes and the cloth covering her face from the bridge of her nose down below her jaw. She understands that the niqab is not an Egyptian tradition, but she doesn't understand why Sheik Tantawi and some government ministers seem to see it as a sign of allegiance to radical Islam.

Ms. HELA OMAR (Student): (Through translator) Anything that covers the body is something that people should respect. I've lived in other countries like Yemen, and the niqab is normal there. So I don't understand why people here think it's extremist, or think it's too Islamist to wear. I just think it's a matter of modesty.

KENYON: Sheik Tantawi's announcement of the ban was clouded by reports that he spoke harshly to a young niqab-wearing student, embarrassing her in front of her middle-school class.

Tantawi denied speaking abusively to the girl and later clarified that he doesn't object to the niqab in public settings where men and women mix. He said the ban applies only to Al-Azhar's classrooms and dorms, which are already segregated.

Dia Rashwan, an analyst with the government-run Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says this is part of an ongoing struggle to define Egypt's cultural references. In the early 20th century, he says, the debate was over the hijab, the headscarf that is now quite common in Egypt, but at the time was controversial.

Rashwan says for Al-Azhar as an institution, it's a matter of defending its interpretation of Islam as the correct one. But for the health of the society, he sees it as a question of accommodating Egypt's various cultures without letting any one dominate.

Mr. DIA RASHWAN (Analyst, Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies): Egypt has many cultures. You know, some of them come from the Islamic era, others come from the Mediterranean, others from the pharaohs. Then we have to respect them.

KENYON: The niqab debate has produced strange bedfellows, with civil rights advocates standing with the Islamists in defense of a woman's right to cover her face.

Hossam Bahgat at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said the ban further discriminates against women who are already struggling to succeed in a heavily patriarchal society.

On the other hand, editor Rania al-Malky wrote in the English-language Egypt Daily News that rejecting the ban on the grounds that it deprives women of opportunity would only perpetuate what she calls this cycle of psychological and social violence in the name of religion.

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On the street, a number of niqab wearers hope that solutions might yet be found. They said they'd be happy to lift their veils so a guard could identify them at the gate, and also during exam time so that their teachers could be sure who was taking the test.

But if history is any guide, this debate is about much larger issues — such as where the Middle East's most populous country is heading, socially and culturally. It's a debate not likely to end anytime soon.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

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