Egypt to ban full women's veils

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MARCO WERMAN: In Egypt, there's a debate underway over whether Muslim women should cover their faces. Now one of the country's highest religious authorities has weighed in. Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi is head of Cairo's Al Azhar University. He recently called on a young girl to remove her niqab, which covers the face. And he suggested that he would ban female university students from wearing it. But as Aya Batrawy reports from Cairo, many women in Egypt disagree with him.

[SOUND OF A YOUNG GIRL STUDYING THE KORAN]

AYA BATRAWY: Young women studying the Koran at Al Azhar University, Sunni Islam's premier seat of learning. Here, they study in all-female classrooms. Most are dressed modestly and wear the hijab, or headscarf. But there are also hundreds studying here who choose to wear the niqab - a full length covering from head to toe, often black, with only a small opening for the eyes. Zizi even has her eyes obscured by a black cloth and wears black gloves. She started wearing the niqab just nine months ago and says she doesn't care if Sheikh Tantawi himself asked her to remove it, she wouldn't.

[SOUND OF ZIZI'S VOICE]

BATRAWY: [IN ARABIC] I respect him greatly, she says, but there is something greater and that is God.

Such defiance is rare, but debate over the niqab has touched a raw nerve in Egypt, where some see its increasing popularity as part of an Islamist threat to the state. Others regard wearing it as a religious duty. So when Sheikh Tantawi recently told a middle school student to remove her face veil, he sparked an outcry. According to local news reports, the sheikh told the girl that the niqab has nothing to do with Islam and is only a custom. And he was reported to have said that he would issue a fatwa, or religious edict, against wearing it in his university. In a later effort to clarify his remarks, the sheikh appeared on a popular news program hosted by a woman who does not cover her hair.

[SOUND OF THE TALK SHOW HOST AND TANTAWI SPEAKING]

BATRAWY: He said that 99 percent of scholars agree that the niqab is not mandatory, so he is not going to follow the one percent that disagrees. And he explained why he said he urged a limited ban on the niqab.

[SOUND OF THE TALK SHOW HOST AND TANTAWI SPEAKING]

MOHAMMED TANTAWI: [In Arabic] The higher council of Al Azhar banned the niqab in a class of all females led by a female teacher because who is she hiding her face from? Does she want to say that she is right and everyone else is wrong? If that girl wants when the class is over to put on the niqab, she is free to do so.

BATRAWY: But the ban at Al Azhar has yet to take effect and the controversy continues. Al Azhar and its head have been accused of carrying out political orders. The government has also banned the niqab from the dormitories of state universities - shutting out dozens of students who refused to un-veil. Dr. Akram Shaar, an independent member of parliament who belongs to the politically banned Muslim brotherhood, says such moves are aimed at keeping Islamists out of universities - and are an attack on civil liberties.

DR. AKRAM SHAAR: [IN ARABIC] Do we ban scantily dressed women from university dorms? No. We do not agree with banning scantily dressed women nor do we agree with banning women wearing the niqab because this is a personal decision based on free will.

BATRAWY: This is merely the latest twist in a long-running back and forth over the face veil in Egypt. Until the beginning of the 20th century, upper-class women wore a sheer, silky veil over the face as a sign of their status and wealth. Later the veil was seen as a mark of oppression - removing it was an act of women's liberation. Now many women are claiming it as a religious and civil right. Asmaa is studying at Al Azhar. All her niqab reveals are her large brown eyes.

[SOUND OF ASMAA, SPEAKING IN ARABIC]

BATRAWY: It's not right to force a girl to do something she doesn't want to do, she says, we will not allow anyone to step on our rights and the freedom to choose. Dozens of others currently barred from the dorms of Cairo University and elsewhere agree - even at the cost of an education. For The World, this is Aya Batrawy, Cairo.