LUXOR, Egypt – A teacher in southern Egypt was convicted of child abuse Tuesday and given a six-month suspended sentence, after she cut the hair of two schoolgirls for not wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf.
The incident last month in the village of Qurna drew criticism from rights groups and local officials. The case is part of a larger debate in Egypt — the state of personal and religious freedoms following the rise of Islamist political movements.
Eman Abu Bakar, the ultraconservative teacher, wears a niqab, which leaves only her eyes visible. She was initially transferred to another school as a rebuke. Then the father of one of the girls and a national center for children's rights filed a complaint, accusing the teacher of abuse.
Abu Bakar told local papers at the time that she resorted to cutting the girls' hair only after warning them repeatedly to cover their heads.
The court also fined the teacher $8.
Most Muslim women in Egypt wear the traditional headscarf, but there is no legal requirement to do so. With the rise of Islamists to power following the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak last year, many less religious Egyptians feared the Islamists, particularly the more radical groups, would push to impose a stricter social and dress code.
Disputes over the role of Islam in the country's new constitution continue, pitting Christians and secular groups against Islamists seeking to increase the role of Islamic content in the charter, which is now being written.
The incident involving the girls and a series of court cases accusing Christians and non-observant Muslims of insulting religion have raised concerns about freedom of expression and religion.
In another case that touches on press freedom, a Cairo administrative court ruled against a decision by the Islamist-led upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, to suspend the editor in chief of a state-owned newspaper for publishing a report deemed offensive to the military.
The decision by the head of the Shura Council to fire the editor, Gamal Abdel-Rahim, included naming a replacement. That caused an uproar among journalists, who said it was an unprecedented move by the council, which formally owns the papers and appoints the editors.
The critics said it is not the job of the council to interfere in running the papers or dismiss journalists on disciplinary grounds for publishing articles.
"The court decision is a triumph for the independence and freedom of the press," said Ahmed Ezzat, a rights lawyer who was part of the legal team on the case. "It prevented the state and its agencies from interfering in press affairs."
Under Mubarak's rule, the state-owned newspapers were seen as mouthpieces of the government, and senior editors were largely considered regime loyalists.
Abdel-Rahim's paper, al-Gomhuria, published an article last month claiming that authorities would soon ban the country's former top military leaders from traveling abroad, pending an investigation into alleged corruption and responsibility in the death of protesters during their rule, before the election of a president in June.
The paper quoted an unnamed judicial source. Abdel-Rahim told the court, according to the state's Middle East News Agency, that he had published an apology the following day, along with a judicial denial and the armed forces' protest that called the report an "offense."