This past month, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, shocked many by issuing a ban on students and teachers wearing the niqab, or face veil, in Al-Azhar University or its adjoining schools, specifically in all female settings. Tantawi’s decision to issue this ban stemmed from an interaction that he had with a secondary school student on one of his visits. According to many sources, Tantawi asked the girl why she was wearing the niqab in an all girl classroom and demanded she remove it. He added that niqab is not part of Islam, but is rather a cultural custom. His decree came soon after this interaction that was criticized by many in Egypt. There were then reports from female students who wear the niqab at Cairo University (not affiliated with Al-Azhar) that they were being prevented from entering the dormitories unless they removed their niqab.
Muslim women are already not required to wear hijab or niqab in front of other women. So the ban really is not saying anything much, but it does have consequences. While the history of the veil has fluctuated in Egypt, this recent ban has many troubled about its implications for Muslim women living in Western nations. Even though many are critical of Sheikh Tantawi, Al-Azhar, as an institution, still represents the highest seat of Islamic learning. Thus, what Al-Azhar does can have far-reaching consequences for the representation and perception of Islam worldwide. More specifically, in light of the move by some European countries, notably France, Tantawi’s edict seems to support Sarkozy’s ban of the niqab to a certain degree. The argument by supporters of niqab in Egypt is that it is a personal right that should be protected. This argument is paralled in Western countries where some Muslims see the recent attempts of banning the hijab and niqab as attacks first on their personal rights and second on Islam. Therefore, one can see how Tantawi’s decree can be used by opponents of the veil.
Some argue that Tantawi’s ban is part of a larger project of curbing certain expressions of religious commitment, specifically those deemed to be “extremist.” Personally, I strongly believe that forcing a women to cover or to uncover is counter-productive and generally results in resistance. That’s what is happening in Egypt. If women who wear niqab agree to security precautions, then they should not be prevented from wearing it. It is a personal right and with every right there are responsibilities; as long as those responsibilities are fulfilled, the right should be protected.
What do you think about the face veil? Should it be banned or not? How much should religious and state authorities interfere in personal expressions of faith? Is a ban against religiously related attire different from edicts requiring it? Please leave your comments below.