Cairo court rules in favour of niqab ban

Pupils who cover their faces with a niqab will be barred from this month's mid-year writing exams.

CAIRO // The Cairo Administrative Court yesterday upheld the decision of the higher education minister, Hany Helal, and heads of three universities to bar women who cover their faces with a niqab from sitting in this month's mid-year exams. Hundreds of students had held a three-day protest in December at several universities against the original decision.

"I filed a lawsuit to stop this decision last month, saying that female guards at the university can check the identity and face of the munaqaba [niqab-wearer] student," said Nizar Ghorab, an Islamist lawyer. "Associating between cheating and a dress code is wrong, as cheating takes place regardless of the kind of clothes, even pants or T-shirts were used in cheating. There won't be a decree banning them. The same thing applies to the scarf or face veil," Mr Ghorab wrote in the case filed on behalf of 55 niqab-wearing university students.

The case was filed against the higher education minister and the heads of Cairo, Ain Shams and Helwan universities, the sheikh of Al Azhar, the grand mufti and the minister of religious affairs, Mohammed Hamdi Zaqzouq. Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, the grand imam of Al Azhar, banned the niqab in Al Azhar classrooms and dormitories after he forced a 12-year-old to remove her niqab. He said it did not matter as she was in a classroom full of girls and her school was run by women only.

In the case, Mr Ghorab said he was suing "the official religious institutions because they ignited the war on the niqab, first when the ministry of religious affairs printed thousands of copies of a booklet titled Niqab is a Habit not Ritual, and then in the sheikh of Al Azhar's anti-niqab stance". "I believe the decision of barring munaqaba students from attending their exams amounts to rape and harassment, as they are forcing the female students of revealing a part of their bodies that they don't want to show, against their will," Mr Ghorab said after the administrative court's verdict was announced yesterday.

He said he would appeal the ruling to the Higher Administrative Court. Mr Ghorab also said Amal Lotfy, a plaintiff in the case, filed a complaint at a police station yesterday after she was barred from attending an exam at the commerce faculty of Ain Shams University, even after she wore a medical mask instead of her niqab. "If I have to choose between my niqab and the test, I will chose my niqab," Noha Ahmed Eid, 18, a medical student at Cairo University and a plaintiff in the case, said yesterday.

"For me, my niqab is my religion, and I'm taking it to imitate the wives of the Prophet, so to ask me now to take it off to attend the exam is like asking me to be naked in the exam hall," she added. Ms Eid started wearing the niqab when she was 14. "The war against the niqab is just the beginning of a war on different aspects of Islam. The state, which is supposed to be Islamic, should go back to Islam, not fight it," Ms Eid said. She said she felt very comfortable keeping her "face, body and beauty" to herself. This is also my personal freedom, and they should respect it and not try to take it away from me.

"I will pray to God to find a way out, that this decision will be dropped, before my exams start on January 24." Yesterday's court decision cuts to the heart of a growing gulf in Egyptian society between those concerned about the continuing rise of religious conservatism and those who believe Egypt has yielded for too long to western secularism. About 90 per cent of Muslim Egyptian women are veiled, although only a minority don the full face veil, but the number is growing.

In January, a Cairo court is expected to hear a case filed by several women activists against Safwat Hegazy, a fanatic satellite preacher, who recently said that "munaqabat should ignore calls for taking off their face veil" and described as "whores" the women who are not veiled or wearing niqab.