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EGYPT: Niqab ban adds to Azhar cleric’s woes

October 12, 2009 |  8:30 am

The decision to prohibit the face veil, or niqab, among female students attending Al Azhar’s universities and schools is proving yet another reason for many Egyptians to call for the firing of Al Azhar’s grand sheik, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi.


The Supreme Council of Al Azhar banned the niqab last week, days after Tantawi ordered one student to remove her veil, telling her that Islam never obliged women to cover their faces. Al Azhar is the preeminent educational and religious institution in Sunni Islam.

Despite later justifying that he only did so in order to hear the girl while she was speaking with him, the incident angered religious and secular figures alike. Many went so far as to suggest that officially banning the niqab was Tantawi demonstrating his religious authority to the media.

"If Tantawi was aiming the benefit of his students by barring niqab, he’d have issued such legislation long time ago. The recent decree was just a result of instant outrage after people condemned him last week," women's rights campaigner and psychologist Magda Adli said.

Ironically, women’s and human-rights activists were always the ones asking for a ban for niqabs and head scarves, saying that both were means of oppressing women. But they weren't happy with the manner in which the nation's leading cleric reprimanded the student.

"Tantawi has violated the students’ personal and religious rights, which are both guaranteed by the Egyptian constitution," said head of the Freedom Centre for Human Rights Mahmoud Abdul Aziz.

This is not the first time Tantawi has been criticized for his decisions. Last year, he angered many Egyptians when he shook hands with Israeli president Shimon Peres when the two randomly met in a conference for intercultural dialogue in Washington. The country's former grand mufti was then asked to resign by leftists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood for showing a sign of normalization with the head of the Jewish state. 

Similarly, Tantawi fatwas have also stymied and outraged his critics: He denounced Palestinian suicide bombers and condoned abortion for victims of rape. Antagonism between Egypt's government, Islamists, secularists and human-rights activists has long divided the nation. Nonetheless, Tantawi seems to be one man all parties find fault with, and the new niqab ban is likely to further erode his stature. 

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: Azhar cleric Mohamed Sayed Tantawi. Credit: Al Youm Al Sabee