Egypt's New Niqab Ban in Schools Divides the Nation

Egypt has recently unveiled its decision to ban the niqab, a type of Islamic religious garment worn by women, at schools, sparking a debate in one of Africa’s largest Muslim-majority countries.

The country’s Education Minister, Reda Hegazy, released a statement on September 11th and was picked up by Egyptian state-owned media, such as the Ahram newspaper. In his statement, he said that students have an “optional” right to cover their hair at school but added that such hair covering should not conceal their face.

Any form of hair covering that contravenes the condition of the face being visible is not acceptable, and the hair covering should be in the colour chosen by the ministry and local education directorate,” the statement also said.

Hegazy also urged the importance of allowing students to wear the hijab and other religious scarves independently, free from the pressure or influence of other people.

The statement from Hegazy said that a female student should decide to cover her hair “based on her own personal desire without any pressure or force from any person or any other entity other than the parents,” in an apparent reference to religious groups and movements in Egypt.

The statement also said parents should be informed of their daughter’s choice and that authorities will verify the guardian’s knowledge of the student’s choice.

He also called on educators, especially those who teach the Arabic language, religious studies, and social and psychological education, to implement the policy with kindness and sensitivity and consider the students' psychological well-being and age appropriateness. 

The ban will be implemented starting the academic year on September 30th and continue until June 8, 2024.

The niqab is a traditional religious garment that holds significance for many Muslims and is typically worn by ultraconservative women. The ban stirred mixed reactions among Egyptians, both online and offline.

Some Egyptians approve of the ban, saying that the niqab could prevent teachers from correctly reading a student’s body language and facial expressions. Others agree with the ban for security reasons, adding that school authorities should be able to properly identify those going in or out of schools and that female students wearing the niqab are largely alienated at schools.

However, other Egyptians raised concerns over the niqab ban, saying the policy might push some parents to transfer their children from mixed, co-ed schools to all-female educational institutions.

In addition, some Egyptians said the ban violates the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Egyptian constitution and infringes upon people’s civil liberties. Others also emphasized Egypt’s identity as a Muslim-majority country and added that it would be difficult for such a ban to erase its identity altogether.

Various public and private educational institutions had already enforced their niqab bans before the Egyptian government announced their policy. Cairo University prohibited its female staff from wearing face veils in 2015, and an Egyptian court upheld this decision in 2016 and 2020 despite appeals.

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