CAIRO: Last October, in an editorial titled “Confronting the Niqab” I supported the decision by now deceased Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Tantawy to ban the full face-veil (niqab) from all-girls classrooms in Azhar institutions.
I defended his position on the subject in a rare nod to his otherwise mostly controversial (and often contradictory and provocative) stances because I believed that the ban he proposed was at best a symbolic move that finally drew attention to a long overdue public debate on the subject of niqab in Egypt.
On the same week, I wrote, niqab-wearing Cairo University students were prohibited from entering the university dormitory and 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, scholars of which overwhelmingly believe that the niqab is not obligatory.
Rights advocates have vehemently disagreed with me citing the fact that such policies would only serve to sideline women from education in a society where the majority of impoverished rural inhabitants practice education discrimination against their daughters in this inherently patriarchal society which favors sons.
They argued 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 adhering to certain moral and dress codes that would facilitate their move to the city and that Tantawy’s move compromised their struggle and stripped them of this empowering.
I disagreed with that stance because Tantawy’s proposition was not going to prohibit women in niqab from entering university. They were not being forced to make a choice between adopting a certain lifestyle or having to succumb to social pressure to dress a certain way, or getting an education.
Had this been the case, my take on the subject would have been significantly different.
So I read with much consternation about a directive issued by the Syrian Education Ministry to ban niqab-wearing women from registering. According to a report by the Associated Press, the order affects both public and private universities and aims to protect Syria’s “secular identity.”
I disagree with experts who claim that in Syria, as in the case in Egypt, the issue of niqab-banning underscores the gulf between the secular elite and poor lower classes who find solace in religion. Although the niqab is partly class-related, it is not wholly a socio-economic issue, but is increasingly becoming a matter of pure conviction, a political statement by sometimes very affluent members of society who choose to don the face veil of their own free will.
It is one thing to propose banning the niqab inside all-girl classrooms, and a completely different thing to prohibit women who wear it from registering at the university. What Tantawy did was perhaps a first step that has succeeded in making people question their beliefs, motives and priorities, but this recent move by the Syrian government is a provocative act of state intervention that has denied these women their inalienable right to education.
Although I do remain a diehard advocate of moderation when it comes to social/religious issues such as the niqab, which I completely reject, I do not believe that it is wise to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In protecting its supposedly secular nature, the Syrian government has trampled the right to education through a gender discriminating decision which is likely to have serious ramifications.
As I believe that the niqab is an expression of extremist thinking on many levels, those who promote this form of interpretation of Islam will certainly not take such a move lying down. Resentment to this decision will go underground, will fester and eventually manifest itself in either a self-defeating drop in the education of Syrian women, or in an all-out confrontation between the Islamists and the state.
Changing social and religious attitudes and practices cannot be achieved with the same heavy-handed state bludgeon with which Syria, like many totalitarian countries in the region, deals with its ideological rivals. There needs to be a delicate balance between direct policies and subliminal awareness raising measures that will organically lead to alternate behavior.
Yes I am against the niqab, and even though ultimately women who give up their education for its sake are still making a “free” choice (albeit a wrong one) for which they must bear the consequences, I believe that they should not have been forced into that catch 22 to start with.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.