News / Middle East

Top Egyptian Female Lawmaker Calls for Banning Niqab

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A top Egyptian woman parliament member is calling for a law to ban the niqab, a mask-like veil, because she says it is "un-Islamic" and prevents women from participating in society.

A top woman member of Egypt's People's Assembly, Zeinab Radwan, is calling for a law to ban the niqab, a full face-covering veil, from being worn in Egypt.

Radwan argues that the niqab is not "authentically Islamic," in addition to posing a security threat and questions of personal freedom.

She says because women are able to hide their faces and identities with the niqab it is impossible for government institutions to fight either terrorism or ordinary crime.

The issue of wearing the niqab has been the subject of widespread debate in Egypt in recent months, since a much publicized visit by the late head of al-Azhar Mosque and University, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, to a girls' school in which he urged the students to remove their niqabs.

After heated discussion in the Egyptian press, Tantawi clarified that he, as the head of al-Azhar, was not forbidding the niqab in every instance, but just in government institutions, and schools:

He says that al-Azhar is not against women wearing the niqab in their personal lives, with respect to their behavior, their habits, its legality, its usage, and of buying or selling it. But he said al-Azhar is against this right in other specific cases.

A strong backlash from Egypt's banned, but popular Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other extremist Islamic groups was felt after many of their leaders defended the niqab. Sheikh Mohammed Hassan expresses the point of view of many hardliners:

He asks why it is that, what he calls, respectable women employees who wear the niqab are being stopped at the doors of government institutions or universities, just because they want to express their personal freedom? What shame is there in wearing the niqab, he asks, and why is it that we forbid these honorable women from entering and call them criminals or extremists, while we do not forbid unveiled women?

The editor of al-Ahram's monthly magazine Democracy, Hala Mustafa, says the Egyptian government needs to act against the niqab, because it poses a security threat:

"Because this phenomena is growing, the government took some steps in order to stop this, especially in universities and some government establishments, in order to clarify the identity of the person, because many crimes have been committed under this niqab and we do not know the person behind it," she said. "And, I think any state has the right to put its own regulations that is compatible with its law and constitution. So, this has nothing to do with personal freedom or liberties. It is about security and public order of the state."

Mustafa says the niqab is not authentically Islamic, but rather a vestige of more strict societies in the Gulf:

"The niqab, or the full veil for women, it is not from the Islamic teachings," she said. "It is more a tradition that comes from conventional culture and societies such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Gulf States in general."

The niqab was virtually unknown in Egypt until the 1990s, when many Egyptian workers in the Gulf began compelling their wives to wear it. The niqab is now a visible and growing phenomenon on the streets of Cairo and in other Egyptian cities.

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