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CAIRO (Reuters) - Rokaya Mohamed, an elementary school teacher, would rather die than take off her face veil, or niqab, thrusting her to the forefront of a battle by government-backed clerics to limit Islamism in Egypt.
Egypt's state-run religious establishment wants teachers like Mohamed to remove their veils in front of female students, sparking a backlash by Islamists who say women should be able to choose to cover their faces in line with their Islamic faith.
"I have put on the niqab because it is a Sunna (a tradition of the Muslim prophet Muhammad). It is something that brings me closer to religion and closer to the wives of the Prophet who used to wear it," she said.
"I know what makes God and his prophet love me, and no sheikh is going to convince me otherwise. I would rather die than take it off, even inside class," she added.
Egypt, the birthplace of al Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri, fought a low-level Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, has faced sporadic militant attacks targeting tourists since then, and is keen to quell Islamist opposition ahead of parliamentary elections next year and a 2011 presidential vote.
The spread of the niqab, associated with the strictest interpretations of Islam, is a potent reminder to the government of the political threat posed by any Islamist resurgence emanating from the Gulf, where many young Egyptians go to work.
Controversy over the niqab flared last month after the state-appointed head of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque asked a young student to remove her face veil during a visit to her school.
Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi later issued a religious edict or fatwa barring women and girls from wearing the niqab in all-girl Azhari schools, saying there was no reason for girls to cover their faces amongst themselves.
An Azhari research center later backed the ruling, saying the face veil should be removed when a girl is in an all-female class with women teachers, in all-female exam rooms, and in all-female dormitories.
Egyptian state-run media have also called for women to show their faces, citing the "damaging" effects of niqab on society.
While a majority of Egyptian women and girls consider it an Islamic religious obligation to cover their hair and neck with a scarf, few Muslim scholars say the full face veil is mandatory.
Yet growing numbers of Egyptian women are abandoning the simple headscarf in favor of the niqab, analysts say, reflecting the growing sway of strict Saudi-based Wahhabi ideology on an already conservative and Islamized society.
"It increased mainly because of the major influence from the Gulf. This habit is not from the heart of Egyptian society. It is imported from the Gulf," political analyst Hala Mustafa said.
"(Extremism) has been increasing in Egyptian society for the past 30 years and therefore Egyptians are accepting more extremism and becoming more closed off," she said.
Egypt, unlike other Muslim states Saudi Arabia and Iran, does not require women to cover their heads with a scarf. But the millions of Egyptians who have lived or worked in Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia are believed to be a source for the spread of Wahhabi ideology.
Just 30 years ago, women attended Egypt's flagship Cairo University wearing miniskirts and sleeveless tops. They strolled along the beaches of Alexandria in skimpy swimsuits at a time when society was seemingly more liberal and tolerant.
Analysts say the headscarf, or hijab, was seen as a status indicator and was prevalent among lower-income classes. Women from upper and middle classes rarely veiled at a young age and those who did usually followed fashionable interpretations of hijab. The niqab was uncommon at that time.
But the niqab has become more prevalent. Women in flowing black robes are a common sight strolling through Egypt's fanciest shopping malls and five-star hotels, as well as in shanties.
Analysts say challenging the stricter interpretations of Islam could be a long journey that requires, in particular, introducing reforms on an educational system that has allowed women in niqab to teach small children.
"These decisions have to be accompanied with ideological procedures and requires challenging the ideology so there will be moderate ideology," Mustafa said.
Egyptian courts have a history of ruling in favor of women wearing niqab inside universities. In 2007, a court ruled that the American University in Cairo, seen as a bastion of Western liberal education in Egypt, was wrong to bar a female scholar who wears niqab from using its facilities. The court cited personal and religious freedom as grounds for its ruling.
Ordinary Egyptians on the streets of Cairo have conflicting feelings regarding the niqab. Some say it should be banned on security grounds because it can be used by criminals to disguise themselves and escape police searches.
Others hail it as the right way to fulfill religious duties or as the best way to protect women from sexual harassment, although a recent study showed veiling had little effect on harassment rates in Egypt.
"When a man cannot see a woman, then what is he going to harass her for? Nothing," said Abu Donya, a taxi driver, whose views are shared by many Egyptians. "So imagine if all women wear niqab, things would be better," he said.
Editing by Dominic Evans