Calls for banning the niqab (the full face veil) in public places and state institutions in Egypt have recently re-emerged, gaining momentum after the High Administrative Court rendered a final judgment this past January rejecting the appeal of 80 niqab-wearing researchers at Cairo University and upholding the university’s decision to ban niqab for staff members during lectures. Following this judgment, Ain Shams University in Cairo announced a ban on the niqab for university staff members and teaching assistants inside labs and lecture halls. Furthermore, it also banned the niqab for doctors, nurses, and their assistants during medical examinations and work at university hospitals.
Those opposed to the niqab portray it as “alien to Egyptian society.” They argue that it has been closely associated with the 1970s and 1980s—an era characterized by the spread of “Wahhabi” Islam from Saudi Arabia, along with other forms of popular religiosity that it represented, which involved habits, traditions, and attire that Egypt had not popularly known before.
Opponents to the niqab argue that it creates a religious or social distinction between those wearing it and others: that of a religiously conservative Muslim woman, who may belong to or supports a current of political Islam. Others still invoke national security reasons and suggest that because the niqab hides identity and has been previously used by criminals to commit crimes, it is the right of society and law enforcement officers to ban the niqab, in an effort to be able to identify criminal perpetrators.
The recent court ruling is not the sole chapter in the battle to ban the niqab. In the last couple years, the debate over wearing the niqab in public places has been in the limelight. In late 2018, for example, a number of MPs adopted a draft law to ban the niqab in public places, citing security reasons to tackle terrorism and extremism. The draft called for a fine up to EGP 1,000 in the event of any violation of the law. Ultimately however, the draft was withdrawn and has not been re-introduced in any form since. In late 2019, the Minister of Culture Enas Abdel-Dayem cancelled the appointment of a niqab-wearing artist as the head of Kafr El-Dawar Palace of Culture in the province of Beheira, after strong criticism from public and political figures that warned that wearing the niqab was evidence of the artist’s intolerance, against the nature of her work and its demands.
In July 2019, the State Council ruled that it had no jurisdiction over the case after a lawyer filed a lawsuit calling on the House of Representatives and Al-Azhar to promulgate new legislation banning the niqab completely.
Position of Religious Institutions
Egypt’s official Islamic religious institutions have attempted to sidestep the debate, instead deferring to state institutions. According to Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the current Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the niqab is neither a religious obligation nor sunnah (a longstanding tradition of Islam). However, he also argues that it is neither abhorred nor forbidden. He adds: “I cannot tell her who wears the niqab that she is doing a lawful action for which she deserves to be rewarded. It falls within the circle of the permissible,” al-Tayyeb said.
In February 2011, Dar al-Ifta—an independent body that consults with the Egyptian Ministry of Justice regarding the compliance of laws and regulations with Islamic law and is responsible of official religious fatwa for state institutions— issued an opinion in support of a lawsuit that, if successful, would prohibit niqab-wearing women from taking university examinations. In its opinion, Dar al-Ifta weighed in that state institutions have the authority to issue a ban based on the fact that the niqab is merely a custom according to the recognized jurists, and its restriction is permissible.
Banning Niqab and Constitutional Rights
Article 64 of the Egyptian Constitution states, “Freedom of belief is absolute. The freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing places of worship for the followers of revealed religions is a right organized by law.”
Personal freedoms have received special protection in the constitution. They should be observed without any derogation or limitation that may touch their origin and essence. Giving the state far-reaching authority over determining suitable clothes to religious values or public order, this right and potentially opens the door to other restrictions over attire and women’s bodies more broadly.
Banning the niqab implicates Egypt’s international legal obligations regarding the right to manifest one’s “religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching,” as laid out in Article 18(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which has the force of law according to the constitution.
The right to the manifestation of religious belief also includes the freedom to wear clothing in accordance with one’s beliefs or religion. Banning someone from wearing specific religious clothes in a private or public place may implicate Article 18(2) of the ICCPR, which bars any compulsion that may infringe upon a person’s right to adopt a certain religion or follow whatever belief they want.
Naturally, there are jobs that have certain requirements, including attire for reasons related to the nature of the job itself, such as the work of female doctors inside operation rooms; these jobs may inherently require restrictions on niqab-wearers. In other cases, for national security purposes or others, it may be necessary to verify a women’s identity by asking her to uncover her face—for example when she is crossing a security check-point. Measures like these however should be strictly limited to appropriate times, places, and contexts. In furthering restrictions on the right to religious freedom, Egypt would do well to adhere to the principles of necessity and proportionality.
Ultimately, an absolute ban of niqab would be at odds with a number of Egypt’s international and constitutional obligations. Further, a ban of this nature would neither reduce manifestations of intolerance and discrimination in a society nor spread progressive values. Rather, these values will emerge in a society in which citizens are able to fully enjoy their freedoms and engage in open and meaningful debate—even on the issues on which they deeply disagree.