The Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawy dropped a bombshell early this week, starting a long-overdue public debate on the niqab in Egypt.
Following the inspection of a primary school to check on measures in place to stem the spread of swine flu at the start of the academic year, he voiced his determination to ban the full face veil (niqab) from the classrooms of all Al-Azhar-affiliated educational establishments, a move that has set off a flurry of furious condemnations and (thankfully) some applause, albeit muted.
Not new to controversy, Tantawy characteristically revealed his own fury when he told a middle school student in a class to take off her niqab.
According to newspaper reports, he angrily told the girl that the niqab “has nothing to do with Islam and is only a custom before making her take it off.
It was then that he announced he would soon issue an order banning girls from entering Al-Azhar classrooms wearing the niqab.
About a day later, Cairo University students in full face veil were prohibited from entering the university dormitory and within the next 24 hours the Egyptian Constitutional Court ruled against the niqab in a case brought forth by some of the Cairo University students who were prohibited from entering the dorms last year. The judge cited the need to comply with the proper interpretation of Islamic Sharia.
Tantawy’s bold gesture seems to have brought together people from all sides of the religious spectrum: he’s been slammed as a heretic (and I use this word idiomatically) by the ultra-conservative Salafists who view his attack on the niqab as nothing short of an attack on Islam; and he’s been criticized by the ultra-liberal human rights-defending crowd and some liberal religious types as stoking discrimination against a minority of already disempowered women for making a dress choice, which is their inalienable right.
The rights advocates have used several arguments to defend their case, many of them are sound enough in the abstract, but fail to see the big picture. They argue that Tantawy’s move will sideline women from education in a society where the overwhelming majority of rural inhabitants discriminate against their daughters partly because of poverty (if they can’t afford to educate all their children, priority will go the sons) and partly because of the inherently patriarchal fabric of society which favors sons.
They argue that the women who have struggled long and hard to make it to a good university in Cairo have only been able to do so by succumbing to a certain moral and dress code which appeased their families enough to allow them to live alone in the big city. They say that Tantawy’s move will take this empowering tool away from them.
With this I completely disagree. First, Tantawy has not banned the niqab from all Azhar academic establishments as a whole, only from the classrooms. So no one is forcing them to remove the niqab in their daily lives nor will they be prohibited from entering the university or school premises.
The very fact that these women feel that they need to cover their faces just to win their basic right to education is itself something the entire Egyptian society needs to combat, not just Tantawy. Rejecting his move on the basis that it would give women less opportunity to receive an education would only help perpetuate this cycle of psychological and social violence in the name of religion when it literally and according to the consensus of 99 percent of Islamic jurisprudence, has nothing to do with Islam and is merely an imported tribal custom.
Others, who have wrongly attacked Tantawy’s decision, say that if such a ban becomes official, it would open the doors for more government interference in the private lives of citizens and their personal choices than what exists already.
To this, I would say, it’s about time the government interfered in the right fight for a change. Apart from the fact that we cannot in any way, shape or form control the whims and moods of an authoritative regime, haven’t these very same moderates been calling for Al-Azhar and the religious establishment to renew its discourse and exert more effort towards fighting the now rampant extremism of which the niqab is a blatant manifestation?
Yes, Tantawy may seem to have done so tactlessly and arbitrarily, but in the final analysis, the move sends an important and clear message (albeit symbolic because the niqab won’t come off overnight) that the niqab is not an Islamic practice and that the extremists who promote it are following an interpretation of religion that flies in the face of the moderate, balanced message of Islam. Merely starting this debate is commendable.
Again some would argue that this random, sweeping measure is a sign of the failure of the religious establishment to educate its own preachers on the pulpit. What’s new? Education, failure and Egypt have been synonymous for decades, but what we’re confronting here is something much bigger. Sometimes this confrontational attitude is necessary to change mentalities, just as Hoda Shaarawi did in the 1920s when she removed her face-veil, setting in motion one of the earliest struggles for women’s liberation and suffrage in the world.
There are also fears that these same arguments I use to support Tantawy’s decision can be used against the hijab, the headscarf which covers only a woman’s hair. Detractors say that this could increase discrimination against women who wear it in Europe for instance where the distinction between hijab and niqab is not strong enough – with haunting visions of more Marwa El-Sherbinis, who was murdered in an Islamophobic crime in Germany last July.
To me this is like comparing apples and oranges. The headscarf, no matter how far both Muslims and non-Muslim argue against it, is still considered by the vast majority of Muslim scholars as the appropriate dress code for Muslim women, unlike the niqab, which has been imposed on Islam by a minority of extremists with vested interests.
Furthermore, on the social and human interactive level, the hijab has proven through the struggles and achievements of those who have decided to adopt it against all odds in Muslim majority and Muslim minority communities that it does not hinder women from reaching excellence in any field they pursue.
But how can the same be said about those who have chosen to remove their face from the conversation? I’m referring here to women who are highly educated sometimes but still choose to adopt a dress code that effaces them, merely to make a statement. In an ideal world where only souls communicate with each other and bodies have no role, it could make no difference whether or not your face is covered.
But this isn’t the world that God has created.
As a practicing Muslim, the central verse from the Quran governing all human interaction appears in Surat Al Hujurat 49:13: “We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).
How are people expected to know each other if they cannot see each other’s faces?
It troubles me that people who defend human rights are indiscriminately attacking Tantawy and even equating wearing the niqab with freedom of belief as a whole. These are two entirely different matters.
The niqab is an expression of extremist thinking, no matter how logical and human-rights compliant that thinking is. When Islamic scholar Suad Saleh attacked the niqab in a TV show a few years ago, she received death threats. If that’s not extremism, then what is?
We have yet to see how this firestorm will end, but if the mentalities and cultural practices of an extreme but increasingly potent minority of Egyptians do not change soon, then at least Tantawy has set in motion a long overdue debate. This is how people start questioning and reviewing strongly held “religious be
liefs that turn out to be no more than gender-discriminating social norms, customs and traditions.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.