Monday, 19 October 2009


and yet again, someone thinks they can tell women how they should dress:

Egypt's Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious centre of religious learning in the Sunni Muslim world, said on Thursday it will ban the face veil from female-only classrooms and residences.

"The Supreme Council of Al-Azhar has decided to ban students and teachers from wearing the niqab inside female-only classrooms, that are taught by women only," a statement said.

The ban extends to women's dormitories and to schools affiliated with the university, it said.

The face-veil, or niqab, is worn by some devout Muslim women. Local press reported that Mohammed Tantawi, head of Al-Azhar, said last week that he intended to ban the practice in the university.

The supreme council's statement added that Al-Azhar does not oppose the niqab, which it said only a minority of Muslim scholars consider an obligation, but it opposes "imprinting it on the minds of girls."

The decision came after female students who wear the niqab were banned from the women's dormitory of the state-run Cairo University.

now let me be clear, even the most staunch defenders of the niqab (face covering) will tell you that it's not required when there are only women in the room. so on the face of it, there's absolutely no harm in this ban, because there is no requirement to cover in this situation. but even so, i feel very strongly about the state (or any of its institutions) not telling women what they can wear, and in what circumstances.

and i can understand the desire by egyptian authorities to combat extremism growing in their society, of which they see the niqab being a symbol. but i can't stomach the thought that the fight against extremism has to be by control over women's bodies.

egypt is a country that has a very poor human rights record, and there is a lot of evidence that political dissent results in some extremely nasty and violent consequences. there is a history of extremism by the state to combat extremism in society. in that context, this move is much more of a worry.

al-azhar is, of course, an institution of quite some reknown. possibly the oldest ever university, it has a long and distinguished history and has produced some of the finest scholars. i'd say that it is well known to have a strong liberal bias, and certainly doesn't tend to produce scholars of the bent of, for example, the saudi conservatives.

i have to say that i'm not particularly surprised by this move. i understand that some scholars at al-azhar provided support for the french government's ban of the headscarf in public schools. and there is certainly precedent for bans like this in other countries with a muslim majority population - tunisia, turkey and the sultanate of oman come immediately to mind.

though not surprised, i'm definitely not happy with this move. it smacks too much of ends justifying means, and of women being pawns in a political game. the best way i know of combatting extremism is through social justice and poverty reduction.


katy said...

hey stargazer, did you read this column in the Economist a few weeks ago?

When I heard about the law change in Egypt I wondered if the explanations were the same, that is, to provide something of an 'alibi' to those women who don't want to wear traditional dress.

stargazer said...

haven't had time to read the article katy. but the cultural environment in egypt has been similar to that in turkey: there has been strong discouragement to cover the hair, forget about covering the face. so i'm thinking most of these women don't really need any kind of 'alibi'. there may be some who do, but i can't imagine it would be that many.

Anonymous said...

don't think Oman has banned head scarves in schools.

stargazer said...

no, but teachers (and i think students as well) are not allowed to wear niqab (face covering) at school. my understanding is that niqab is also not allowed in government workplaces.

katy said...

stargazer, the article I referred to talks about a girls school in Antwerp which allowed students to wear headscarves (one of very few to do so). This resulted in more conservative families sending their daughters to the school and as a result (it is said) girls in the school felt more pressure to move to wearing even more concealing dress. In the end the school placed a ban on headscarves which had a number of negative consequences also. However, from what you say, it seems like there wouldn't be the same situation in the Egyptian university of families seeking to out-devout each other via their daughters (if this is what was happening in Antwerp).

AnneE said...

This is a difficult issue, but unfortunately I don't think social justice is the whole answer - the initial pressure on women to wear and not wear particular forms of dress comes from the religious hard-liners, not the government. Susan Moller Okin's landmark essay on feminism and multiculturalism at is a really good place to start thinking about these issues.

stargazer said...

sorry, but that's a blanket statement i can't agree with. in some cases there may be external pressures, but in many other cases there isn't. in egypt, i'd say the pressure is to not cover, and the women who do so may have many reasons of their own. the "religious hardline" may actually be a result of their own deliberations and an informed decision on their part.

i've never heard of susan moller okin, but i do know that i'm a little tired of western feminists thinking they know best. i hope she's not one of those. will try to get to the link over the weekend.

katy said...

"in some cases there may be external pressures, but in many other cases there isn't. in egypt, i'd say the pressure is to not cover, and the women who do so may have many reasons of their own. "

That is an interesting comment, about the different sources of pressure. I wonder if the sources of the pressure are qualitatively different somehow? Because this seems to be a basic assumption for some of us "westerners". Perhaps many people who aren't familiar with the way religious institutions work assume that they are somehow less benign than those of the state.

Please forgive my awful analogy but it reminds me of the decision that women in some western societies make regarding what to do about their body hair or other aspects of their appearance; in the industry I work in women are expected to take a lot of care with their appearance, to wear make-up etc and to turn up at a meeting with hairy legs would be a revolutionary act, whereas in previous lives the pressure has been very strong in the other direction, to eschew all that or else be seen as frivolous.

stargazer said...

yeah, that's a difficult analogy because, in an environment where there is strong social pressure to remove hair, what do we think of the woman who doesn't? because that would be the situation of women who cover in many countries - in urban pakistan, for example. the women who choose to cover in these countries will often do it because of their own beliefs, or they may do it as a protest of the adoption of western values and resentment against the fact that these values have superceded local values through a process of colonisation or [what is seen as] cultural imperialism. for them it's a return to their own roots and a statement that they don't have to carry that trope of being the native savages who were "civilised" by a coloniser.

i mean, there are so many things that may be going on in any particular woman's head, which is why i find a ban of the sort that al-azhar has implemented to be highly troubling. just as troubling as i find the enforced covering of the saudis. but really, i can't think of a country in this world where women are free to just be. by that i mean an enviornment without any cultural and social pressures around ideal womanhood, where choices are truly free. in such an environment, i wonder what we would choose.

katy said...

Good question! I am so caught up that when I think about my ideal it usually involves thinking about the nice clothes I would buy if I had money, rather than imagining an alternative like the Star Trek, gender-neutral, unbranded option.