December 22, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 573

Egypt's Niqab War: The Regime and Islamic Establishment versus Extremist Islam

December 22, 2009 | By E. Glass*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 573


The Al-Azhar Supreme Council, headed by Al-Azhar Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, recently passed a resolution banning the wearing of the niqab (which covers the entire body and face, with a slit for the eyes) in classrooms for girls at all Al-Azhar education facilities – from elementary schools to high schools to colleges – and also in the women's dorms at the colleges. The ban was welcomed, and backed by, the Egyptian regime, but was harshly criticized by non-establishment Islamic circles, as well as by Egyptian human rights organizations, who called it a flagrant violation of individual freedom by the state.

The emotional responses to the affair, and the media storm surrounding it, show that the niqab debate is neither an isolated issue nor a fight over a particular phenomenon, but is part of a broader struggle over religious authority and over the nature, and the future, of Egyptian society. The struggle is between the regime and the Islamic establishment, on the one hand, and extremist and non-establishment Islam from the Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood school of thought, on the other; the niqab has come to clearly represent the latter camp.[1]

Tantawi: The Niqab Is Only a Custom, Not a Religious Duty

The current niqab affair began with an incident that received wide coverage in the Egyptian media: On October 4, 2009, on a tour of an Al-Azhar girls' school, Al-Azhar Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi saw a 14-year-old pupil wearing a niqab, and ordered her to remove it immediately. He said, "The niqab is only a custom, and has no connection to Islam." He expressed his amazement in public that the niqab was being worn in an all-female environment, and declared that he would issue an official decision banning the niqab in all Al-Azhar institutions for girls.[2]

The official decision followed shortly thereafter. Al-Azhar's Supreme Council, which Tantawi heads, issued a number of decisions and guidelines on wearing the niqab. Both pupils and teachers were banned from wearing it in the classroom, as well as in the women's dorms. The ban applied to all Al-Azhar classrooms, from elementary school through university. An Al-Azhar Supreme Council communiqué stated that Al-Azhar did not oppose a woman's right to wear the niqab in her home, on the street, or at work, but was against her exercising this right when it was unnecessary. Sheikh Tantawi clarified that a woman wears the niqab so that no man may see her face – and that it was completely illogical for her to wear it where only women were present. He stressed that for this decision, he had relied on a majority clerical opinion that a woman's face is not shameful, and on a 1996 ruling by Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court.[3]

Following the Al-Azhar decision, Cairo University president Dr. Husam Kamal decided not to allow niqab-wearing students to enter the university's women's dorms.[4] The next day, Cairo University and other universities began to implement the decision: Female students in niqab were not allowed on campus, and dorm directors were instructed not to let these students in, and also to permit prayers in the students' rooms only, not in public areas.[5]

The Establishment Joins the Anti-Niqab Fight

It was evident from the outset that the Egyptian establishment was joining the fight against the niqab. Two salient examples of this were the position taken by Higher Education Minister Hani Hilal after the universities decided to ban the niqab on campus,[6] and Minister of Religious Endowments Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq's directive that preachers at ministry mosques would not be allowed to mention the niqab issue in their sermons.[7] On another occasion, Zaqzouq said that the events that followed the October 4 incident at the girls' school were only a "media explosion" aimed at distorting the image of Islam. He said that Al-Azhar's task, and that of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, was to bring the correct religion to the awareness of the public.[8]

It should be noted that Egyptian regime's objection to the niqab did not arise following the recent events. Over a year ago, the Endowments Ministry published a book titled The Niqab – A Custom, Not a Religious Duty, which presented the views of clerics opposed to the niqab, including Minister Zaqzouq, Sheikh Tantawi, Egyptian Chief Mufti 'Ali Gum'a, and many others. The book has already been circulated in 150,000 copies, and the ministry is now preparing a second edition. On October 8, shortly after the outbreak of the recent affair, the daily Al-Misriyoun reported that senior members of the ruling NDP party's Policy Committee, headed by Gamal Mubarak, had given firm instructions to spotlight the niqab issue and generate public pressure through media campaigns on the issue. The NDP officials clarified that Tantawi's decision would be the opening shot of a broad media campaign by the government press and TV channels.[9] Indeed, a short while later, the government press, which had previously been neutral on the niqab affair and its implications, became much more involved in the matter.

Al-Ahram: Do We Want a Modern and Advanced Society or a Frightened Society?

On October 10, 2009, Al-Ahram published an editorial about Tantawi's decision that clearly endorsed the sheikh's position. It said: "First of all, if Sheikh Al-Azhar sees fit to issue decisions and rules regulating the operation of the Al-Azhar facilities, then the public should respect these rules. If Sheikh Al-Azhar issues a decision banning the niqab in Al-Azhar facilities, then its purpose... is to protect the girls' safety and wellbeing...

"Second, the niqab has nothing to do with religion, and any attempt to present the act of not wearing it as [an act of] heresy or of leaving the fold of Islam is a despicable and misguided attempt. Everyone must realize that the niqab is a marginal issue that has nothing to do with the central tenets of the faith... Third, society has the right to protect its members [by enforcing] norms that are acceptable to the majority, [even if these norms are rejected] by a marginal minority. (Is this not the essence of democracy)?...

"Let's be honest with ourselves. Do we want a modern and advanced society like all the other societies that Allah has created, or do we want a frightened society steeped in superstition? Does this mean that we will fight women who wear the niqab? Of course not. All we want is for every citizen to enjoy personal freedom as long as he does not impose his views upon others and as long as he respects the values of society – especially those of freedom and modernity."[10]

Al-Gumhouriyya Editor: Don't Leave the Younger Generation Hostage to Caveman Mentality

One day later, MP Muhammad 'Ali Ibrahim, editor of the government daily Al-Gumhouriyya, wrote about the niqab in his weekly column. Referring to the incident of the schoolgirl who was scolded by Tantawi for wearing the niqab, he wrote: "[The Sheikh] spoke to the girl firmly [because he is] like a father watching out for the interests of the younger generation, lest it be hijacked by oppressive forces and filled with notions of excess, extremism and zealotry. We must not leave the younger generation hostage to the caveman mentality that obscures[11] the light of reason, issues threats, and accuses the rest of society of heresy...

"[But] the truth is that the issue of the niqab goes far beyond Sheikh Al-Azhar's [decision]. This is [a struggle to preserve] the moderate nature of Islam, which Al-Azhar champions... The extremist sheikhs, [like those of] the Al-Azhar Scholars Front[12] and their ilk, have decided to turn Egypt into Afghanistan under the Taliban..."[13]

Al-Akhbar Columnist: The Extremists Are Trying to Stifle Progress and Hold Us Back

Muhammad Barakat, a columnist for Al-Akhbar, wrote: "We direct our words primarily at those who have forgotten... the moderate and tolerant nature of Islam. They decided to make religion difficult... [so] they banned what Allah has permitted, saying over and over again... that the niqab is mandated by the shari'a.

"But that was not enough for them, so they began to frighten the simple folk, and anyone who disagrees with their views, [by threatening them] with horrible catastrophes that will befall them in this life and the next. They foisted the niqab on their wives and daughters and the simple folk naively accepted this as one of the tenets of the faith. To these [extremists] we now say loud and clear: Have mercy upon us and upon the simple folk, [and spare us] your narrow-minded and inflexible opinions!...

"These [extremists] are making a fuss in order to prevent progress and hold us back. They are trying to instigate internal strife and plant extremist ideas in the souls of our young daughters... We endorse the position of Sheikh Al-Azhar and his bid to enlighten [the people] by correcting [misguided] notions and returning to the true faith..."[14]

Endowments Minister: Tear Down the Artificial Barriers that Keep Women Isolated from Society

Endowments Minister Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq wrote in Al-Ahram: "While the [world's] newspapers are reporting about four women from the U.S., Israel, and Germany who have won Nobel Prizes for medicine, chemistry and economics, we and our press are preoccupied with the niqab. By doing this we reduce Islam to a piece of cloth that covers the woman's face, negates her individuality, and isolates her from society. This harms Islam and also harms women by taking them back to the jahiliyya [i.e., the pre-Islamic era]...

"The niqab debate in Egypt dates back to the 19th century. [Even then,] respectable and noble people fought to liberate women [from the niqab] out of a correct understanding of Islam. They fought to tear down the artificial barriers that isolated women from the [rest of] society, and now [history] is repeating itself in an unfortunate [display] of cultural regression...

"It is [both] the right and the duty of the woman to be in contact with [the rest of] society, and there is no doubt that the niqab – which is only a custom, rather than a religious duty – is an obstacle to maintaining this contact. [A woman] who dons the niqab is not exercising her personal freedom – she is abusing this freedom..."[15]

Roz Al-Yousef Spearheads the Anti-Niqab War

In the last two years, the Roz Al-Yousef newspaper has been spearheading the war against the niqab, seeing this issue as part of an overall struggle over the character of modern Egyptian society.[16] Therefore, it has naturally been very active in the recent affair as well, publishing numerous interviews and articles on the niqab and wondering why Egypt has taken so long to wake up and confront this issue.

Roz Al-Yousef Editor: This Is a Struggle over the Identity of Egyptian Society

The editor of the Roz Al-Yousef daily and weekly, 'Abdallah Kamal, wrote in his weekly column: "Egyptian society is pleased to let men and women mix freely, but some of its daughters insist on isolating themselves by hiding behind black veils. Each of them lives in her own little tent, behind a veil that comes to us from the Tora Bora mountains [in Afghanistan] and is unsuited to Egyptian culture...

"[Even some] female university students, whom one would have expected to pursue knowledge, have [adopted this custom], that harks back to the era before the advent of the [monotheistic] religions. One would have expected them to champion women's rights and equality, but [instead] they imprison themselves in a portable dungeon, out of their own free will... We must not keep silent, because the wagon [of history] has begun to slide backwards...

"In the past, the Egyptian papers were one of the most important vehicles of enlightenment, and it was unusual for a newspaper to support the extremists. Today, [however], newspapers have become a tool for spreading extremism, incitement and oppression... [Some newspapers] have convinced people that the streets have become the refuge of [promiscuous] devils and that everyone should be concerned for [the safety of] our fragile females... They started speaking of the danger posed by this phenomenon, saying that it changes the face of Egyptian society and harms Egypt's culture. But that is not an accurate picture [of what is happening in this country]. If Egypt is changing, then we must lead it in the right direction and sound the warning bells in order to alert people [to the danger] of regression. We must defend our country and spread progress and modernity among its various sectors...[17]

In another Roz Al-Yousef editorial, 'Abdallah Kamal wrote: "This is nothing less than a war over the identity [of Egyptian society]. It must not be dismissed or taken lightly. Perhaps this affair interests you less than [buying] a loaf of bread, but it is far more dangerous. Perhaps it interests you less than your electric bill, but it is more important. Perhaps you are looking at the media storm surrounding this affair and wondering, 'Why now?' My answer to that is that you are right, because we have all been late [in waking up to the danger].

"There was a time when a niqab-clad girl on the street was a rare sight, and people regarded them with puzzlement and suspicion. Now we are talking about dozens, or maybe hundreds, [of such women] on the main streets [of our cities] and in the poor neighborhoods... We woke up too late, and they have become common. They have crawled out through the cracks in our culture to impose this benighted [ideology] upon our value system...

"This is not Egypt. They want to turn [the niqab issue] into a war in order to turn the deviant into the norm and the unusual into the ordinary. We must not give them the chance to do so. Ours is a pluralistic state with a moderate religion. Islam in Egypt mirrors its surroundings: it is balanced in its values, moderate in its reasoning and modern in spirit... This issue is far more dangerous than [you believe]. We are facing a national threat..."[18]

Roz Al-Yousef Board Chairman: "Egypt Will Never Be a Land of Extremism, Brutality and Cruelty"

The chairman of the Roz Al-Yousef board of directors, Karem Gaber, wrote in his weekly column: "[Sheikh Al-Azhar], you are not alone. We will never leave you to fight this dark war alone and to receive treasonous blows and stabs... You are not the only target [of the extremists]. They mean to blackmail and intimidate anyone who tries to awaken the people to the [light] of reason in times of ignorance and irrationality...

"The banned group [i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood] has marked you as a target, as well as the stability, peace and security of the state... Sheikh Al-Azhar has not harmed anyone's individual freedoms. [It is the extremists] who constantly harm [these freedoms,] with their backward notions and the questionable hadiths they spread through their satellite channels and mosques... Our mothers and daughters have become prisoners in a cage of prohibitions and hadiths about hell and torments...

"[But] Egypt will never be [ruled by] these whip-wielding [extremists] and by the religious police, and its women will never [be subjected to] their whip lashes, their wicked tongues, and their cruel edicts... Egypt will never be a land of extremism, brutality and cruelty..."[19]

Roz Al-Yousef cartoon: Egypt's black future[20]

* E. Glass is a research fellow at MEMRI


[1] The human rights debate surrounding the niqab should likewise be seen through the prism of the struggle between the religious establishment and extremist Islamic circles. Egyptian human rights activists do not usually operate independently, but are part of a particular stream or sector: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Copts, liberal circles, etc. These divisions were clearly reflected in the responses to the niqab affair: the Sawasiya Human Rights Center, directed by a Muslim Brotherhood attorney, stated that the ban on wearing the niqab was a violation of individual freedoms and of the Egyptian law and constitution (Al-Misriyoun, Egypt, October 8, 2009), while Coptic human rights activists supported Tantawi's decision, arguing that the custom of wearing the niqab should be abolished since it oppresses and restricts women (Al-Misriyoun, Egypt, October 6, 2009).

[2] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 5, 2009.

[3] Al-Ahram, Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), October 9, 2009. The ruling to which Tantawi referred stipulates that the Education Minister may ban the wearing of the niqab in schools to protect the general interest of the public. It was issued in response to a lawsuit filed by the father of a girl who showed up for school in a niqab and was denied entrance. The ruling clarified that the authorities have a right to enforce a dress code reflecting the norms of the majority in society, and also that wearing the niqab is not mandated by Islam. Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), October 11, 2009.

[4] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt); Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 6, 2009.

[5] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), October 8, 2009.

[6] Hilal said that female students are allowed to wear the niqab on campus, and that special woman guards have been posted at the campus gates to ascertain the identity of the women entering the compound. He added, however, that the students must take off the niqab upon entering the dorms, so as to protect the girls from men that might enter the area disguised as women. Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), October 9, 2009.

[7] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), October 10, 2009.

[8] Al- Gumhouriyya (Egypt), October 13, 2009.

[9] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), October 8, 2009.

[10] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 10, 2009.

[11] This is a play on words: the verb "to obscure" is derived from the same root as the word hijab ("veil").

[12] This is a body of Al-Azhar alumni that does not officially belong to Al-Azhar.

[13] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), October 11, 2009

[14] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), October 13, 2009.

[15] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 21, 2009.

[16] See, for example, MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1801, "Egyptian Weekly Reveals Elementary School Girls in Rural Areas Wear Veils Covering Their Faces," January 8, 2008, Egyptian Weekly Reveals Elementary School Girls in Rural Areas Wear Veils Covering Their Faces.

[17] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), October 10, 2009.

[18] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), October 17, 2009.

[19] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), October 10, 2009.

[20] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), October 22, 2009. Cartoonist: Sharif 'Arfa.

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