First Published: 2006-10-21

University in Egypt embroiled in battle of the veil

Former Islamic law dean says Koran does not say women must cover faces, it's old Bedouin tradition.


Middle East Online

By Alain Navarro - HELWAN, Egypt

Islam does not call for covering the face

Egyptian students whose faces are completely hidden behind the veil have been banished from the residence halls at Helwan University under threat of expulsion in what could be called the battle of the veil.

"They say nothing to indecent girls, but we -- the daughters of Islam -- are being hounded," protests 21-year-old student Iman Ahmed. Only her eyes are showing through the slit in her black face veil, called a niqab.

Even though the vast majority of female Muslim students already wear the headscarf, known as a hijab, those who chose more cover up of the face veil were told to take it off or quit the student digs.

The ultimatum provoked a vicious controversy.

It was handed down by Abdel al-Hay Ebaid, dean of Helwan University located on the edge of a large industrial estate 30 kilometres (19 miles) from Cairo. Some 2,800 female students are housed in the seven women's residence halls.

"What I want is to protect students against those individuals who might worm their way in, disguised under a face veil," Ebaid says of the ban, adding: "Their parents would kill me if a man infiltrated the women's halls."

Those in the anti-veil camp are congratulating themselves that the brake has been put on fanaticism, while those who support the veil say the ultimatum is an invasion of their freedom.

"This ban restricts my freedom," says student teacher Rihan Sami, 21, completely veiled and gloved.

"The veil is my choice in battling against the shamelessness that abounds here."

In order to gain access to the campus, girls wearing the full veil must pass through a small office where a woman inspector checks them behind a curtain to verify their identities against a list of registered students.

"They only have to do the same thing for the halls of residence," argues Sami, adding that she decided to no longer wear the veil there in order to avoid being expelled.

Demonstrations against the ban were quickly staged by a "committee of free students.

The veil may be everywhere on campus, but there are many students who also choose to sport versions in vibrant colours -- and also to wear it along with figure-hugging outfits.

"It is also a fashion statement, not just an item of religious clothing," according to male student Ahmed Raouf.

Other universities in Egypt such as Ain Shams and AUC, the American University of Cairo -- the university of choice for the elite -- have tried in recent years to oppose the march of the veil.

But not all devout Muslims believe in the full veil.

"I don't like it," says Soad Saleh, a professor of Islamic law and former dean of the women's faculty of Islamic studies at Al-Azhar University, which is more than a thousand years old.

Her face framed in a blue headband under a white veil, this reformist Muslim -- nicknamed the Women's Mufti -- says she wants to "purge Islam of false concepts: the Koran does not say women have to cover their faces, it's an old Bedouin tradition".

She questioned the wearing of the face veil during an appearance on the Dream satellite television channel.

The controversy in Egypt echoes recent comments against the face veil by Jack Straw, the leader of Britain's House of Commons and a former foreign minister.

At Helwan University, meanwhile, the women students can continue to wear either the headscarf or the face veil. But if they want access to the women's residences there must be no cover-up.


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