Battle over face veil brewing in Egypt

Mon Nov 2, 2009 8:33am EST
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By Mariam Karouny

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.   Continued...

<p>A woman wearing a niqab sells groceries in Cairo November 1, 2009. 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 fulfil 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. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra</p>