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As a loud and controversial debate rages in Europe over wearing the Muslim face veil, Syria quietly imposed curbs on the niqab, the veil that exposes only the eyes.
The secular-minded Syrian government has rejected extreme religious dress in the classroom, making it the first Arab government to weigh in so heavily on the issue.
NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus.
DEBORAH AMOS: It's a small piece of cloth that's become a political symbol -the full face veil that covers everything but a woman's eyes. The Syrian government sees it as a growing sign of radical Islam and is set on stamping out this most visible symbol. The latest crackdown is in the education system. But over the past year, dozens of Islamic institutes have also been closed.
Most Syrians welcome the government's decree. Those who didn't kept quiet about it.
(Soundbite of backgammon game)
AMOS: In the Rawda Cafe, an institution here in Damascus, where backgammon games go long into the night, English student Alaa Badran believes most Syrians don't accept extreme religious expression.
Ms. ALAA BADRAN: Okay, I think when they wear this niqab, they are exaggerating in covering their faces.
AMOS: Her backgammon partner, Riham Dakakny, says the veil is bad for women and for Syria's image as a secular state.
Ms. RIHAM DAKAKNY: Sometimes men force their women to put this. I don't know why. There isn't anything in the holy Quran or in our religion to tell them to do this, so I don't know.
AMOS: A few tables away, 20-year-old Rolan Alakel, bareheaded, checking her Facebook account and smoking sheesha, the traditional water pipe, was surprised by the government ban.
Ms. ROLAN ALAKEL: Here? They did? Seriously? Yeah. I'm with them. I don't like it.
AMOS: So far, Syria's official media has said nothing about the ban on face veils in schools. But word spread when hundreds of teachers were removed from the classroom and reassigned to other jobs.
Some of them complained to an organization that specializes in women's rights, but they didn't get much support from Bassam Kadi, the director of the Syria Women Observatory.
Mr. BASSAM AL-KADI (Director, Syrian Women Observatory): The important thing: Niqab is a very big kind of violence against women. The woman under niqab is a victim.
AMOS: The face veil has become more prevalent across the region. A sign, some say, of a wave of anger over the region's violence, political failures and autocratic regimes.
The Syrian government has been wary of Islamist uprisings since the 1980s. A rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood brought the country to the brink of a civil war.
The face veil ban puts Syria in line with European parliaments, where attitudes have also hardened against this symbolic piece of cloth.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.
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