Mandatory hijabs at Egyptian schools spark debate about religious conservatism

While some feel that parents should determine what kind of dress codes are imposed on their children at school, rights activists fear the country's religious discourse is becoming more conservative

Egyptian pupils attend a Chinese language class at the Martyr Ahmed Mahmoud Mustafa school in Giza. EPA
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A mandatory dress code at a number of Egyptian schools, which imposes the hijab on female pupils, has ignited a debate about religious conservatism in the Arab world’s most populous nation.

Some feel that if pupils' parents are in support of imposing the hijab at school, it should be allowed. Others have called on the government to intervene, lest Egypt follow other Muslim-majority countries which have seen their cultures shift in a more conservative direction.

A video showing a girls’ school in the agricultural province of Daqahlia in which all the pupils were wearing shadors — a type of full veil popular in Iran — was played on an episode of El Hekaya, Egypt’s most popular talk show, on Monday night. It provoked outraged commentary from host Amr Adib, one of the country’s most celebrated journalists.

“This doesn’t look like Egypt. It’s not how Egyptians express their modesty,” Mr Adib said.

Government clarifies choice

A statement from the education ministry's representative for Daqahlia on Monday reaffirmed an earlier position that the government does not impose the hijab on anyone and that it would be holding the school's management accountable for their unlawful imposition of the garment. The statement said the school's policy went against the ministry-mandated criteria for school uniforms.

Social media channels have been flooded with commentary on the matter since Monday night, with some pointing to the fact that similar rules have existed in many Egyptian provinces since the 1980s without much intervention from the government.

That was in part due to a wave of Egyptian migrant workers who had experienced more austere religious cultures abroad.

Divided on dress code

In October, another school in Sharqia, one of Egypt’s poorest provinces, defended in a Facebook post its imposition of a hijab mandate on the grounds that it was “promoting equality” among its students and protecting girls from sexual harassment.

The National spoke to Sally Raafat Shafik, an English teacher at an international school in New Cairo, an affluent neighbourhood east of the Egyptian capital. Ms Shafik said that although there is an element of regulation in every dress code, imposing a shador-style veil is too extreme.

“I definitely think this is taking it a step too far. It’s normal for schools even in liberal countries to impose a certain level of modesty in school uniforms but I also think it's very important for students to have the space to express themselves through their clothes,” Ms Shafik said.

Her views echo opinions on the liberal side of the debate, saying that in her school, veiled girls are welcome and so are girls whose hair is dyed pink and who have multiple piercings. She views this diversity as a positive thing, explaining that it makes students more open-minded when they interact with people whose values are different from their own.

On the other side of the debate, parents of poorer students at the country’s public schools (all the schools with hijab mandates are public) told The National that such schools don’t impose these rules on their own, but do so at the behest of the parents of the girls enrolled there. Many of these parents are equally austere with their enforcement of modesty in their own homes.

“When my daughter gets older, she will not be living in France or a liberal country. She will live among people who value her modesty above all else. She will be friends with them and when the time comes, she will have to marry a man who most probably will believe in her covering up and respecting her faith. That’s why I am in support of the hijab at school,” Ahmed Fahd, 39, a father of two children and a resident of Zagazig, the largest city in Sharqia, said.

His daughter’s school in Zagazig imposes a hijab mandate.

“It’s good for her to learn what is expected of her and what her religion is asking of her.”

Noura Ahmed, 41, a Greater Cairo resident and mother of a 17-year-old girl who attends high school in the city’s Giza district — one that does not have a hijab mandate — said her daughter decided to wear the hijab because of peer pressure.

“I honestly don’t care if my daughter is veiled or not and I did not impose it on her. But one day she came home when she was in middle school and said that some of the other students had questioned her virtue and that she felt rejected by them because of her hair. She told me she had decided to be veiled and I let her,” Ms Ahmed said.

“The thing is that I understand her decision. There are certain conclusions drawn about unveiled women in Egypt that put them at a higher risk of being harassed and I don’t want my daughter to go through that.”

Ms Ahmed says that her low socioeconomic class means she is more beholden to such social conventions than richer families who have the luxury of wearing what they want.

In September, a number of Egyptian government universities imposed a more modest dress code on their campuses. The new code included more regulations on both the attire and conduct of both male and female students.

University students' conduct, particularly when it comes to sexes mixing, has been a matter of national debate since June. At the time, Nayera Ashraf, 21, a student at Mansoura University, was murdered by a fellow student whose romantic advances she rejected.

Ashraf’s murder was filmed in its entirety and posted on social media — to the horror of the entire nation. Some more conservative commentators such as the former Al Azhar cleric, Mabrouk Attia, blamed the murder on the victim’s “provocative” clothing choices.

Dress codes, both at schools and universities, have been largely decried by rights activists in Egypt with Nihad Abol Komsan, a prominent women’s rights lawyer claiming in an Instagram live in August that foreign Islamist entities were spending millions to indoctrinate students in Egypt’s rural provinces to make them more conservative.

In September, Abol Komsan said she was concerned that the new dress code was only aimed at covering women up which sends the wrong message as to who is to blame for harassment or gender-based violence.

In October, Sameh Asker, a self-proclaimed liberal author and rights defender said in a tweet, “this phenomenon is not only prevalent at one or two schools, but tens and hundreds. Egypt is on its way to becoming a new Afghanistan if the government neglects this.”

Updated: November 09, 2022, 3:00 AM