January 8, 2008 Special Dispatch No. 1801

Egyptian Weekly Reveals Elementary School Girls in Rural Areas Wear Veils Covering Their Faces

January 8, 2008
Special Dispatch No. 1801

An investigative report by journalist Asma Nassar, recently published in the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef, revealed that elementary-school girls in many Egyptian villages attend school wearing a niqab – a veil that covers the face – even though Islam does not require this.

The report also revealed that the girls' parents, influenced by extremist Salafi movements that are gaining strength in their areas, forbid their daughters to mix with boys and with girls who do not wear the niqab. Some are not allowed to participate in music and art classes, to go on school trips, or to play with their classmates.

Commenting on this phenomenon, Nassar wrote that it is "inhuman and alien to the [true] spirit of Islam." She added: "Extremism leads to nothing but greater extremism... In all the advanced countries of the world, there are laws for the protection of children, which compel parents to protect their children's innocence, and [prevent them] from inflicting their insanity on their [sons and daughters]. [I call upon] all reasonable people in this country and upon everyone who cares about our children... to find a solution [for this problem]..."

Reacting to the publication of the article, other journalists in the Egyptian press criticized the Education Ministry and the Ministry of Religious Endowments for failing to supervise the religious education of schoolchildren in Egypt.

The following are excerpts from Nassar's article and from one of the responses to it:[1]

I Felt as Though I Was on a Visit to Afghanistan

"[Many] schools in the Al-Sheikh District are full of girls and women teachers wearing the niqab, as well as bearded male teachers who lower their eyes when speaking to the older girls and even to the youngest ones... I came out of there [feeling] as though I had not been visiting part of my own country, but [some corner of] Afghanistan...

"[I first encountered this phenomenon] on a street in the village of Al-Sheikh. I saw a young girl with a veil [over her face] and a school bag in her hand... When I asked her how old she was, she said that she was in the eighth grade. I asked: 'Aren't you too young to be wearing the niqab?' She laughed and replied: 'I have been wearing it since fourth grade… I couldn’t get her out of my mind. For a moment I imagined the life that lay ahead of this young girl, whose childhood had been eradicated and whose mind had petrified before it could open up and develop, giving her the ability to make her own choices.

"I never thought that I would [soon] encounter dozens of teens, and even girls as young as seven or eight, wearing the niqab. But when I entered the Abu Bakr Al-Sadiq Elementary School in Al-Sheikh during recess, I saw a girl in the third grade running around in a niqab, playing and splashing water on her friend. It was both strange and heartbreaking to see a little girl who looked to be no older than seven, her thin body swathed in somber black clothes, hiding behind a fence in a game of hide-and-seek. Her friend found her and they both started giggling...

"At another school – the Muhammad Ragab Elementary School – things were even worse. As soon as I entered the school I encountered a few [women] wearing the niqab. I couldn't tell whether they were teachers or mothers. On the staircase, I met three third-grade girls, about one meter tall at the most – one wearing a niqab, one wearing a khimar [a veil that covers the head], and the third wearing an isdal [a long dress]..."

Teacher: The Niqab Presents No Problem

"A [male] third-grade teacher [named] Ridha told me: 'Girls who wear the niqab present no problem as long as they hold out their palms when they need to be caned. They are just like any other girls.' When I asked him whether these girls ever talk to boys, he said: 'The girls in second and third grade sometimes talk to boys, and sometimes refuse. But in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, the girls who wear the niqab categorically refuse to talk to boys or to be in their presence, or even in the presence of [other] girls.' When I asked him how he recognized his [veiled] pupils, he said: 'The girls completely refuse to let anyone expose their faces. So when we have to verify the identity [of a veiled pupil], we call one of the women teachers...'

"Ridha [said that he] noticed no difference between the girls who wear the niqab and those who do not, except that the former are more introverted, and [tend] not to play or run around a lot, out of concern that boisterous and playful behavior would be at odds with their style of dress.

"The Koran teacher, Farag, assessed that the girls wearing the niqab were only imitating their mothers. Some of them, [he said,] are forced by their families [to wear the niqab] [and added that the girls] themselves understood nothing...

"A sixth grade pupil named Samah Ibrahim told me, 'The face must be covered because it is the center of a woman's beauty, and [therefore] must be concealed.' Interestingly, these [pupils] speak of women, not of girls. They see themselves as grown women to whom these rules [of modesty] apply, [even though, according to Islam, the rules do not apply to girls under 13]..."

Parents Forbid the Girls From Participating in Art and Music Lessons

"I asked the Arabic teacher, Ahmad Tawfiq, about art classes, and he said: 'They are not allowed to draw. They avoid this because their parents forbid it.' However, the art teacher, Safa, qualified this statement, and explained that she asks these pupils to draw a mosque, the Ka'ba or a [decorative] frame around a verse from the Koran. As for music lessons, [the teacher] Ahmad said: 'All Al-Azhar schools forbid music [lessons]. About school trips, he said: 'None of the girls who wear the niqab participated in our recent school trip to Alexandria. Their families forbid this because they might mix [with boys]...'"

"I also interviewed one of the girls' fathers, a bearded man named Ibrahim 'Abbas who works as an accountant. He said: 'A girl must wear the niqab from the moment the first signs of womanhood appear in her. According to the Shari'a, her father has the right [to force her] to wear one...' I said: 'But your daughter is in fourth grade. She is little and displays no signs of womanhood at all.' He replied angrily: 'The streets are full of human wolves who do not distinguish between a little girl and a young woman, because the drugs [they take] blind their eyes and their hearts. I must protect my daughter. Nobody [has the right] to interfere with how I raise my daughter, because I am giving her the correct Islamic upbringing...'

"I asked whether he forbids his daughter to draw, and he said: 'Drawing is forbidden, because on the Day of Judgment Allah will tell anyone who made a drawing to breathe life into it, but he will be unable to do so and will be dragged on his belly into Hell. Music is also forbidden. Girls and boys may play a drum, because even the Prophet used this instrument, but all other musical instruments are the instruments of the Devil...'"

Schoolgirl: "Watching TV is Forbidden"

"The school sheikh, Ahmad Al-Shinawi, commented: 'This phenomenon does not pose a problem of any kind. It is natural and predictable. What do you expect when [the girls'] fathers are bearded and their mothers wear the niqab [themselves]? These girls simply reflect their surroundings, which are becoming more and more religious.'

"When I commented about the great number [of girls wearing the niqab], Al-Shinawi said that there were even more such girls than I had seen, because his school had over 50 girls who had been wearing the niqab since the second grade. He added that their parents were not from a low socio[-economic] background; [on the contrary,] most were doctors, engineers and merchants. However, all of them belonged to the Salafi movements which have grown considerably in Al-Sheikh in the recent [years]...

"Next, I visited one of the Al-Azhar junior high schools for girls. There... dozens of the girls, aged 11-13, wear the niqab, and most have been wearing it since elementary school. [In fact,] about half of the girls [in this school] wear the niqab...

I managed to speak with some of the girls. 'Aisha, an eighth-grader, told me that watching television was forbidden, because on the Day of Judgment women who had done so will be hanged by their hair... She also added that a girl must suppress her laughter, so as not to arouse lust in men. I asked the girls how they spent their vacations, and [another girl,] named Fatima, said: 'We never go on vacation, only in order to learn the Koran by heart...' When I asked them whether their parents hit them, 'Aisha replied: 'My father hits me when I am late for prayer or forget to pray.' Fatima said that her mother hits her if she goes out with her girlfriends, because she is afraid that Fatima might be kidnapped or attacked by a boy or a man... She added: 'Summer camps are forbidden. Aren't you a Muslim? Don't you know that [children] who go to camp are like infidels?...'

"The school sheikh told me: 'We do indeed have a large number of girls who wear the niqab. The majority of them have been doing so since elementary school, and it is mostly the family that is responsible. Personally, I am saddened by this, because the girls are still young... But I cannot take any decision [against this], or even tell [the girls] my opinion, because [if I do,] there will be a revolt against me...'"

Schoolgirl: Even Showing the Eyes Is Forbidden

"In the village of Manshiyat 'Abbas, I spoke to a girl with a black niqab that covered even her eyes. I asked her to at least uncover her eyes, so I could speak to her, but she said that she would do so only if the [male] teacher left the room, because she was not allowed to reveal her eyes in his presence. He left the room and she uncovered her eyes. When I told her that some girls wear a niqab that leaves their eyes uncovered, she replied crossly: 'If they wear their niqab the wrong way, that does not mean that I have to do so as well.' This embarrassed her friends, and one said that she exposed her eyes only because her eyesight was weak. Another explained that she does so because she sits in the back of the class and [otherwise] cannot see the board...

"This phenomenon is common not only in Al-Sheikh, but also in other villages and centers where extremist Salafi movements have appeared... The sheikh of 'Abd Al-Fatah Al-Sheikh school in the village of Katama in Al-Gharbiyya District explained: 'This is a religious tendency that prevails throughout the village, and it does not pose a problem... The phenomenon exists everywhere, even in schools run by the Education and Culture Ministry. It has become very common [for young girls to wear the niqab]. I have received no official instruction either to force the girls to wear the niqab or to prevent them from doing so.'"

Egyptian Columnist: We Are Regressing to the Period of Backwardness

In a column criticizing the phenomenon described by Nassar in her report, Ibrahim Sa'ada wrote in the Egyptian daily Al-Akhbar: "If it were not for my [trust] in [the reliability] of Roz Al-Yousef and of the journalist who brought us this scoop, I probably would have doubted her words. Who would have believed it? We are in the 21st century, and despite this we see, read and hear that there are people among us who have managed to bring us back to the period of backwardness, ignorance and superstition. Moreover, what was once a limited phenomenon has become prevalent. What was once limited to certain streets, neighborhoods, or villages has become common everywhere.

"What we read in Roz Al-Yousef indicates how primitive we still are. We thought that we had a minister and Ministry of Education, experienced teachers, and prominent experts on Islam and the Shari'a who were teaching our sons and daughters the true tenets of Islam: its tolerance, its [real] laws, and its compassionate [ways]. We thought that our Ministry of Religious Endowments was supervising and guiding the sheikhs and the imams in the mosques. [Their duty] is to spread Islam among the people, to ensure that [people] know the true principles [of Islam], and [to protect them from] the interference or control of the Salafi movements and their followers."[2]

[1] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), November 24, 2007.

[2] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), December 3, 2007.

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