CAIRO – Egypt's top Islamic cleric said Thursday that students and teachers will not be allowed to wear face veils in classrooms and dormitories of Sunni Islam's premier institute of learning, al-Azhar, part of a government effort to curb radical Islamic practices.
The decision announced by Sheik of al-Azhar Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi came days after he said the face veil, or niqab, "has nothing to do with Islam." His comments and actions have sparked an outcry from Islamists who see them as an attack on their religion and some rights organizations who believe banning the niqab violates constitutional freedom.
The explosive issue of how much of a Muslim woman's body should be covered remains contested among Islamic scholars.
The majority of scholars say the face veil is not required but is merely a custom that dates back to tribal, nomadic societies living in the Arabian desert before Islam began.
While a vast majority of Egyptian women wear headscarves, few wear the niqab, which is common in Saudi Arabia where the more conservative form of Wahhabi Islam is practiced. The trend seems to be gaining ground in Egypt, leading to government attempts to ban the face veil from public institutions.
Tantawi, who was appointed by the Egyptian government, first attacked the niqab Sunday during a field visit to a middle school where he asked a student to remove her face veil, according to local media.
Al-Azhar schools are segregated between men and women.
The cleric said Thursday that his decision to impose a partial ban is based on a 1996 constitutional court ruling that granted education officials the right to regulate Islamic attire in schools. He said the goal was to "spread trust, harmony ... and the correct understanding of religion among girls."
The majority of scholars "say that the face of a woman is not a shame," he said.
Tantawi said al-Azhar does not oppose women wearing the niqab in al-Azhar school yards, even though local media had reported earlier in the week that he would impose a total ban.
A militant Palestinian group, Jund Ansar Allah, posted a statement on the Internet on Wednesday criticizing Tantawi and calling on Muslims to carry out attacks against the Egyptian government.
The media arm of the group accused Tantawi of "declaring war on the niqab, and facilitating matters of vice" in a statement posted on its Web site, according to the Washington-based SITE intelligence group, which monitors militant messages.
Al-Azhar oversees education in over 8,000 schools that offer basic and secondary education to over 1 million students. The schools mostly offer religious education and operate in parallel to public schooling. Graduates can later enroll in al-Azhar University.
The U.N. Development Program estimated in 2008 that al-Azhar schools absorb nearly 20 percent of Egyptian students in basic and secondary education.
Security officials have said that verbal orders have also been issued to bar students covered from head to toe from entering dormitories at several other Cairo universities, which are overseen by the Higher Education Ministry.
But the attempt to bar the niqab from public institutions has ran into scholarly opposition and social resistance.
Tantawi appeared to be attempting to walk a fine line by avoiding banning the niqab altogether from al-Azhar schools.
Previous government directives over the last two years to ban women preachers wearing the niqab from mosques and nurses from wearing full veil in hospitals have not been fully enforced.
A researcher wearing the niqab who was prevented from using the library at the American University in Cairo in 2001 took her case to the Egypt's supreme court and eventually won. The court ruled a total ban on the niqab to be unconstitutional.
The court did recommend that women wearing the niqab be made to uncover their faces before female security guards to verify their identity.
Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said Tantawi's decision does not constitute a violation of constitutional freedom because it does not fully ban the niqab and women forced to take it off will be in places where there are no men.
"This is much more limited than what it initially sounded like," he said.