TRIPOLI— A new fatwa by Libya’s top religious authority, the Grand Mufti, saying that all women teachers must veil their faces when instructing males who have reached puberty has prompted the anger of liberal activists, who fear this is the start of widespread educational gender segregation.
Libya’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sadik Al-Ghariani made the fatwa following a request from the Ministry of Education for advice on the issue as some schools had started to order women teachers to cover up.
The mufti stopped short of saying that there should be total gender segregation but he counseled the ideal solution would be to segregate male and females altogether in schools and universities.
The ruling has outraged liberal women activists. One of them, Nareen, who asked that her family name to be withheld, said this is a backwards step. “I am very upset. I think it is a huge step back. It is very sad to see this is the way our education system is going. That they are looking back at segregating women, men and children,” she said.
Rebel leaders appointed al-Ghariani as grand mufti during the uprising against ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He had held the post under Gadhafi as well.
But Libya’s reformers have become increasingly frustrated with what they see as the mufti’s meddling in politics. He wields semi-official influence and his fatwas don’t have the force of law, But they can shape government policy.
A Sunni Muslim country where religious observance underpins every social norm, Libya has been struggling with its Arab Spring transition to democracy. Liberals, like Nareen, fear they are losing ground to Islamists who want to make the country more conservative.
“It is a long-term political agenda because when you want to change a nation you target education because you are breeding the future generations," said Nareen. "And so you target education because that’s when you are ingraining what the future will be so targeting the schools they are sowing the seeds of the future they want.”
Earlier in the year the mufti issued an open letter to the country’s politicians warning that unless strict gender segregation was imposed at schools, universities and even in government offices, Libya risked incurring the wrath of Allah.
In this week’s fatwa, he said children and students must at least be segregated during break times -- in playgrounds, corridors and halls -- and there should be separate entrances for boys and girls. Girls shouldn’t wear make-up or use perfume.
Another liberal activist, Leila, said Islamists are moving incrementally. “They are waiting for the reaction that’s going to be. That is their way to try taking over. Taking slowly by slowly,” she said.
She said many activists are fearful because when they speak out they receive threats or are warned off. “They target the families. They target your families just to silence you, shut you up. What they are doing is like an octopus their hands are everywhere, here and here and here and there,” said Leila.
The Ministry of Education will now have to decide what overall instruction they should give schools. And the nation’s human rights groups worry that the mufti’s fatwa will provoke Islamic vigilantes.