Battle of the niqab moves to Egypt

Lawmakers are seeking to link a ban to security concerns, not wider political or social issues.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Security factor. Women wearing niqabs walk past posters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, last March.  (Reuters)
Security factor. Women wearing niqabs walk past posters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, last March. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Calls for banning the full-face veil known as the niqab have moved from Algeria to Egypt, where lawmakers are calling for outlawing the wearing of the garment, especially in state and educational institutions.

Those making the calls, liberal-minded lawmakers and activists, point to security concerns in wearing the full-face veil, particularly given that Egypt is fighting terrorism in the country.

“Some of the terrorist attacks that happened in the past were carried out by people wearing the niqab,” said Mohamed Abu Hamed, a lawmaker leading the drive for banning the niqab in Egypt. “Some men even wear them to escape police and commit crimes.”

While most Muslim women in Egypt wear the headscarf known as the hijab, many, particularly Salafists, wear the niqab.

Demands for banning the niqab at state and educational institutions follow a decision by Algeria to ban civil servants from wearing the full-face veil at the workplace. However, a recent UN ruling that France’s ban on the garment violates human rights could pose a problem.

There is no official estimate of the number of women who adopt the niqab in Egypt. Lawmakers are seeking to link a ban to security concerns, not wider political or social issues. The Egyptian government has strongly clamped down on political Islam following the ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi in 2013. While the Muslim Brotherhood, with which Morsi was affiliated, has been banned, Salafist political groups continue to operate in Egypt but are greatly diminished.

Abu Hamed, a member of the Solidarity and Family Committee in parliament, said he intends to propose a bill banning the niqab on security concerns.

“When women cover their faces, this prevents policemen from identifying them. Terrorists can also easily hide behind these full-face veils to stage attacks,” he said.

It is no surprise that liberals, such as Abu Hamed, would like to see the niqab banned in Egypt. Abu Hamed is a former vice-chairman of the liberal Free Egyptians Party and took part in the 2011 Egyptian revolution that ousted long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt’s liberals and secularists were at the forefront of opposition to political control by the Muslim Brotherhood after 2011, with many backing Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s bid to reform religious discourse in the country.

What is striking, however, is that scholars at al-Azhar, the highest seat of Sunni authority in Egypt, back banning the niqab. While al-Azhar supports the hijab, it said the full-face veil is a step too far.

One of the most outspoken critics of the niqab is Amina Nasir, a member of parliament and a professor of philosophy at al-Azhar University. She described the full-face veil as a threat to national security.

“The full-face veils have nothing to do with the Islamic religion at all,” Nasir said. “It even contradicts some of the verses of the Holy Quran.”

Nasir said that the full-face veil is more a cultural remnant than a religious requirement. When Islam appeared, she said, it did not impose the full-face veil on women.

Ahmed Karima, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at al-Azhar University, agreed. He said that the fact that Muslim women perform the haj ritual without fully covering their faces proves that the niqab is not a religious requirement.

“This is why I say the authorities have to act to ban these veils,” Karima said. “Women who want to fully cover their faces can do this at home.”

The increasing calls for banning the niqab sets up a tense confrontation with Egypt’s ultra-orthodox Salafists who consider the garment a red line.

In post-revolution Egypt, the Salafist Al-Nour Party was the second largest party in parliament after the Muslim Brotherhood. The Salafists had a strong following in the Nile Delta, some southern provinces. Alexandria and other coastal cities.

While their political support has significantly waned, there are many Salafists who support the niqab.

“The authorities should punish those showing their bodies instead,” said Talaat Marzouq, the deputy chairman of Al-Nour. “Preventing women from covering themselves up will but increase extremism because the women who are denied the right to wear the full-face veils will feel discriminated against.”