In a move towards secularism, Egypt’s lawmakers are drafting a bill to ban women from wearing the niqab (Islamic veil that covers the face, except the eyes) in public places and government institutions, said MP Amna Nosseir, who is also a professor of comparative jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University.
According to Amna Nosseir, it is not necessary for Muslim women to wear the niqab because, she argues, the tradition originates from Jewish culture rather than Islamic teaching. (The niqab is different from the hijab, a head covering that leaves the face exposed.)
Her argument centres around the interpretation of Quranic verses such as Q24:30-31 which are generally translated as saying that men should lower their gaze when they see a woman so as to avoid having sinful thoughts. “How did Islam impose the niqab if Muslims are asked in the Quran to lower their gaze?” asks Nosseir. If women’s faces are completely covered, she argues, men would not need to be instructed to avoid looking at women.
However, in many Muslim-majority contexts, the traditional view is that Islam requires women to wear the niqab. An attack on the wearing of the niqab can often be interpreted as an attack on Islam itself. Culturally speaking too, the social standing of a Muslim man can be affected by the modesty with which the women in his household dress.
Over the past ten to 20 years, the niqab has come to symbolise Islamism, and the number of women wearing the veil in both Muslim-majority contexts and the West has increased. Egypt is no exception and there, too, the number of Muslim women who have adopted wearing the niqab has increased over recent years.
Egypt’s President, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, however, is attempting to secularise government institutions in order to counter Islamism. Last September, Egypt’s Cairo University banned its female staff from wearing the niqab in classrooms because they could not communicate effectively with students. And in February 2015, Cairo University banned female nurses and doctors from wearing the face veil in medical schools and teaching hospitals.
Al-Sisi has also called for a reform of Islam and is promoting tolerance towards the country’s Christian population.
The Egyptian government’s attempts to secularise the country’s institutions stands in stark contrast to Turkey, where the present Islamist AKP government reversed its ban on the hijab for female public sector workers in 2013.