Egypt has long championed a moderate interpretation of Islam, but some Egyptian women are rebelling against government-promoted secularism. More and more of them are choosing to wear the niqab—a veil that covers the face—in addition to the traditional hijab, which only covers the hair, spreading fear among government officials that some Egyptians are embracing hardline Islamic values.
The controversy surrounding the niqab boiled over in October when Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, Egypt’s top cleric and head of the Islamic Al-Azhar University, walked into a high school classroom in Cairo and told a female student to remove her veil. Soon after, Tantawi banned niqabs in classrooms and dorms at his campus, on the grounds that it “has nothing to do with Islam” and that it was unnecessary since the university is gender-segregated.
Egypt’s state-run media have backed Tantawi’s ban by encouraging females to show their faces, citing the “damaging” effects of the niqab on society, while the ministry of religious endowments has gone so far as to distribute booklets that suggest the niqab is un-Islamic. But despite the government campaign, analysts say increasing numbers of women have taken to wearing the niqab, which was almost never seen in Egypt just a decade ago.
Some women are wearing the niqab as a form of rebellion against a government that is widely viewed by the masses to be autocratic, corrupt and uncaring—they feel they should be able to choose their own dress. For others, the decision is based on the belief that wearing the niqab will bring them closer to God, a notion inspired by Salafism, an ultra-conservative school of thought practised in Saudi Arabia that places an emphasis on orthodox Muslim doctrines.
Although most followers of Salafism shun politics, the movement has much in common with the ideology of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, giving the government even more ammunition in its quest to quell the movement.