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Syrian Education Minister Bans Full Face Veils in Universities

Syria's education minister has issued a decree banning women on university campuses from wearing veils that cover their faces. The decision appears to be drawing fire from some quarters and praise from others.

Syrian Minister of Higher Education Ghaith Barakat says the decision to ban women wearing the "niqab" from entering university campuses was taken "at the request of a number of parents." Those parents, he said, do not want their children to be educated in an "environment of extremism."

The minister's decree follows a decision last month to dismiss 1200 Syrian school teachers who wear the face veil in class. Education officials, at the time, stressed that Syria was a "secular society," and that extremism is "unacceptable."

Al-Arabiya TV quoted an education ministry official, who argued the niqab was "against academic principles" as well as "campus regulations." He also called the practice an "ideological invasion." Syria's ruling Ba'ath Party denounced niqab-wearing at a recent conference.

A decision in Egypt last year to forbid women government employees from wearing the niqab created a storm of protest. The late head of al-Azhar University, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Tantawi caused a controversy when he urged students at a girls' school to remove their niqabs.

Analyst Peter Harling of the Crisis Group in Damascus says Syria is caught in a bind between its own secular tradition and the Islamic fundamentalism of some of its allies:

"I think there is a fundamental contradiction in Syria's posture," Harling said. "Syria on one side is a secular country, or at least the regime at the helm is deeply structurally secular, and very attached to that particular identity. I think it is the last secular bulwark in the region, so to speak, on the one side. On the other, Syria is very much part of regional trends, which it tends to foster, through its support for militant groups, which most often embrace an Islamist outlook."

He also said there is a deeply felt feeling in Syria that it is time to act against the more extreme forms of Islam in the country, before it is too late."

Syria's minority Alawite sect, which loosely governs the country, is more Western-oriented and less traditionally Islamic than the dominant Sunni sect. But many of Syria's regional allies, including Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah or the Palestinian Hamas movement have militant Islamic tendencies.

Maral Haidostian, who is Armenian and was brought up in Syria, points out the country's many minorities probably support the ban the niqab, while conservative Muslims might object to the measure:

"For women, maybe it is positive in my point of view," Haidostian said. "But, according to Muslim women, I do not know. I think for liberal women it is positive, but for the (conservative Muslim) community, maybe this is going to be difficult to accept. I do not know if (their) parents are going to allow the ladies-the women-to go to universities without covering themselves. This might backfire for the ladies."

The number of Syrian women wearing Islamic attire has grown dramatically in recent decades. Many observers argue the practice has spread due to the many Syrians who have lived and worked in conservative Islamic Gulf States.