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SYRIA: School ban on all-covering veil raises nary a peep among activists in the Middle East

July 15, 2010 | 11:42 am
Niqab France protest

Who knew right-wing Western politicians and the Syrian government had something in common?

The niqab, a face-covering veil worn by some Muslim women that has been maligned by many in Europe and the United States as a symbol of oppression and religious extremism, has been quietly outlawed in public schools by Syrian authorities in an effort to protect the nation's nominal secularism.

Syria has a long and fraught history with Islamic opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. But despite possibly forcing 1,200 women out of their jobs, no one is headed to the streets or has even launched a Facebook campaign yet. 

"If people sense that this is a step that will lead to more repressive action by the state against other religious symbolism there may be a backlash, but this act on its own will not lead to a massive reaction," Ahmad Moussalli of the American University of Beirut, who has spent years studying political Islam in the region, told Babylon & Beyond.

The ban does not affect the hijab, or headscarf, which is favored by the vast majority of veiled Syrian women.

The issue of the niqab falls into a complicated cultural space in Syria. When similar bans were introduced in Europe, they were widely criticized in the Middle East as discriminatory against Muslim immigrants. But many women's rights organizations in the region, and in Syria specifically, are staffed by secular activists who also share some of the government's fears of radicalization.

Phil Sands of the Abu Dhabi-based National newspaper spoke with Bassam Kadi, director of the Syrian Women Observatory, who explained his reasons for declining to take up the cause of the niqab after several of the affected women approached his organization for help.

"The niqab is not a Syrian tradition,"  Kadi told the National. "It's an imported symbol of religious extremism and contradicts the moderate Islam we know here. If [a woman] wears niqab, she is forcing an attitude on society. She is making a statement. That is not acceptable in a school." 

Although no formal announcement was made, local media began reporting the ban in June after women who wore the niqab began coming forward and complaining that they had been fired or reassigned to government offices where they would not come into contact with students.

"Education in Syrian schools follows an objective, secular methodology and this is undermined by wearing the face veil," Education Minister Ali Saad reportedly said during a teachers' syndicate meeting last month.

Reactions to the ban have ranged from outraged to approving, according to the Damascus Bureau blog, which monitored the reaction on Facebook and other online forums, a popular method for gauging public opinion in a country where the press is tightly controlled by the state.

Similar measures of forced secularization have had mixed results in such countries as Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey, where governments have sought to control the rise of political Islam through a mix of appeasement, coercion and violent repression. 

Earlier this year, an Egyptian court upheld a ruling that banned female students from wearing the niqab during final exams, citing the possibility of cheating. Thousands of people demonstrated against the ban, which was criticized by many prominent Egyptian clerics.

But Syria is generally less conservative than Egypt, Moussalli explained, and the ban will affect a much smaller minority.

"I would say [the ban] is wrong because it goes against personal choice, so from that perspective I think it's problematic," Moussalli said. "But in Syria, freedom is not a choice; this is an act by the state to curb radical behavior ... maybe in certain religious circles they will be upset and angry, but other than that I think not."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: When a niqab ban was introduced in French parliament earlier this year, it was seen in the Middle East as a discriminatory anti-immigration measure. Credit: Alain Jocard / AFP

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