By Our Correspondent
NEW DELHI – The Egypt government’s recent decision to ban the wearing of Niqab (full-face veil ) by female students in schools in the upcoming academic year, starting from September 30, has sparked a major controversy in the North African country. While Niqab has been banned, the students will have the right to choose whether to wear a Hijab (headscarf).
The majority of citizens in Egypt have criticized the decision, saying the ban infringes upon the religious freedom guaranteed by the country’s Constitution and violates civil liberties. As Egypt is a traditional and conservative Muslim country, the government may find it difficult to implement the decision affecting the religious identity of people. Over 90.6% of the population in Egypt is Muslim, while Christians comprise 9.26% of the population.
Minister of Education Reda Hegazy has issued a ministerial decision regarding the specifications of school uniforms for all students in public and private schools for the new academic year 2023-24. The order stated that hair covering for girls is not compulsory but rather optional, and the covering chosen by the female student of her own will “should not obscure her face”.
According to the decision, the school students, both male and female, must wear a uniform according to specifications which include an apron and trousers for all students in the colour determined by the relevant Educational Directorate. The apron may be replaced by a shirt and skirt of appropriate length for girls, and a shirt and trousers for boys.
For students choosing to wear the Hijab, the Education Ministry said that the guardians must be aware of their daughter’s choice and ensure that it is made “based on her desire without pressure or coercion from any person or entity other than the guardian”. The Ministry clarified that Hijab should not cover the faces of girls.
Even as the decision has led to an outrage among the practising Muslims, the Education Ministry has clarified that it is for the welfare of Egyptian students, limiting any chances of cheating, identity thefts and other possible crimes. “You cannot easily identify who the student covering her face is. In the past, irregularities committed by those wearing a face veil could not be spotted on time, such as students replacing others in exams or men disguised as a face-veiled woman inside women-only places,” a source in the Ministry was quoted by the local newspapers.
Egyptian society has witnessed fierce debates over wearing Niqab at public places and in educational institutions for a long time and several schools and colleges in the country have autonomously imposed a ban on Niqabs. In 2015, Cairo University introduced a Niqab ban for its staff, which was later upheld by the courts.
However, the proposals for banning Niqab, introduced in the Egyptian Parliament in recent years, were either withdrawn or rejected. In 2020, an unveiled television presenter, Radwan El-Sherbini, sparked a heated debate by saying that women who do not wear Hijab have the devil inside them.
Critics affirm that the state should not dictate individuals’ choices of religious attire. Niqab has long been advocated by various religious groups and Salafi Sheikhs, even though it is known for not being an obligatory dress code in Islam. Several Islamic scholars have frequently argued that women must show their faces during Salat and Haj as per the teachings of the Holy Quran, which further proves their argument that it is an optional outfit.
A few surveys have revealed that women wearing Hijab have been discriminated against in Egypt. The Hijab became more common in Egypt at the end of the 1970’s and the beginning of the 1980’s when many Egyptians migrated to Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, to find work and were influenced by the atmosphere prevailing there.
Women who do not wear Hijab have often been subjected to criticism, even as the Islamic scholars and intellectuals have been discussing whether Hijab is obligatory in Islam or not. While some women find themselves compelled to wear it outside their homes due to social pressure, others abide by it out of belief.
While announcing the decision, Hegazy made it clear that the students will have the right to choose whether to wear a headscarf, but insisted that it must not cover their faces. He also said that the child’s guardian should be aware of their choice, and that it must have been made without any outside pressure.
“The role of the teachers of the Arabic language, religious education, and social and psychological education, will be to prepare the students psychologically to implement the Education Ministry’s decision with all kindness and gentleness, taking into account the students’ psychological state and their age level,” Hegazy said in a statement.
The decision will be enforced starting from the academic year on September 30 and continue till June 8, 2024. Several Middle East observers opine that the ban on Niqab may lead some parents to shift their children from mixed schools to the female-only schools, but several others believe that the measure will strike a balance between religious expression and maintaining a clear educational environment.