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A Battle Over Veils at Cairo University

Cairo—Cairo University has expanded the ban it previously imposed on wearing veils, known in Arabic as the “niqab,” inside its campuses. The ban will now also include nurses, staff members of the faculty of medicine, and female staff in the university’s teaching hospitals.

Inside teaching hospitals, the niqab ban will require female staff members to take off their veils only when treating patients. “The issue of banning the veils in the university and teaching hospitals is not religious, but for the benefit of the educational and therapeutic process,” said Gaber Nassar, president of Cairo University, in a media statement. The ban states that removing the veil during treatment is important to patients’ rights.

Nassar’s new resolution, like many of his previous ones, has met with strong opposition.

Following the 2013 military overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi amid massive protests against his rule, Egypt’s security forces launched a media-backed crackdown on Islamist groups. Some view the recent ban as part of this crackdown.

Ahmed Mahran, the head of the Cairo Center for Political and Legal Studies, said he has received a number of phone calls from veiled women who work in teaching hospitals asking him to file a lawsuit against the university president. “The resolution violates the law, the Constitution, and judicial rules,” Mahran said.

The decision of Cairo University’s president follows an earlier decision he announced in October of 2015 in which he banned veiled faculty members from giving lectures with their faces covered. An Egyptian court supported the resolution in January, when it rejected four lawsuits filed by about 80 veiled scholars against the decision.

“The decision is just right,” said Ghada Ali, the deputy head of the Anti-Harassment and Violence Against Women Unit at Cairo University.  “The ban only applies during the delivery of lectures, and women can wear veils elsewhere in the university.” She said most of the scientific research has shown “the importance of facial expression in communication.”

Nevertheless, a veiled professor at Cairo University, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions against her, sees the decision as unfair and violating her personal freedom.

“I have taught for 16 years, and I have never received a single complaint from a student about having difficulty understanding or communicating with me because of my niqab,” she said.

Female doctors and nurses protest against the decision by Cairo University President Gaber Nassar.

The professor said revealing her face is ineffective in large halls that sometimes hold more than a thousand students. “Of course, a student at the center or end of the hall cannot see the professor’s face and lips. We also use large screens to display the information, so students follow the screen and not the professor’s face.”

Sundus, a student at Cairo University, agrees with the professor’s view that the niqab is not an obstacle in students’ ability to understand lectures. “Delivering the information depends on how competent the professor is with the subject,” she said. “We have a veiled professor, and she is delivering the information in an excellent way. Her being veiled creates no problem in communicating with her.”

Wearing veils is allowed at fifteen universities in Egypt.

“Beards, veils, and headscarves are personal matters,” said Rushdi Zahran, president of Alexandria University in a press statement. “We will not issue a similar decision, as we have veiled women who have worked at the university for years, and nobody has complained.”

So far, the decision will only apply to professors and workers at Cairo University and excludes students, who are afraid the university might take a similar step against them.

“I am afraid the university will generalize the resolution to include students. Then, I might be forced to drop out,” said a veiled student at Cairo University, who asked to remain anonymous.

Cairo University’s veil ban is not the first of its kind. The university issued a similar decision in 2010, but it was struck down by the court. On the regional level, the Tunisian government introduced a ban on the hijab for girls younger than 12 years old in February of 2015, as well as a full ban on the niqab at all educational institutions. Later last year the Tunisian education ministry suspended a schoolteacher and a high school supervisor for refusing to remove their niqabs. Also, the decision by Tunisia’s Manouba University to prevent female students from wearing veils on campus triggered riots and closures of the university for a short time.

“This decision interferes with a human’s right to choose his or her clothing, which falls within the framework of personal freedom guaranteed by the Constitution,” said Mohammed Abdulsalam, a researcher at the Association for Free Thought and Expression. He added that it would have been better if the university administration had used objective criteria to identify when it was necessary for students to see a professors’ face and lips, such as when learning languages or pronunciation.

“Then, veiled faculty members can be given the option to teach subjects that do not require unveiling the face, and leave other subjects to unveiled professors,” Abdulsalam said.

Since appealing to the judiciary was not helpful before, a number of doctors and nurses at Cairo University’s Kasr Al-Ainy Hospital organized a protest at Kasr Al-Ainy Medical School to denounce the veil ban.

“This is our right. We will not give it up,” said the veiled professor at Cairo University.


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