On December 11, the American University in Cairo AUC announced a ban on the niqab, the face veil, citing security concerns. “In order to ensure a safe and secure environment for all members of our community and visitors alike, we determined that the identity of all persons on campus and AUC-operated transportation must be immediately apparent,” said a statement issued by AUC President Francis J. Ricciardone.
The ban, originally due to go into effect on December 21, triggered a wave of protests across campus including by unveiled female students who marched while donning the niqab in solidarity with their colleagues who are affected by the ban. On December 18, the AUC backtracked on its decision and face-veiled students are now allowed on campus. The ban and its annulment were not the first and are not expected to be the last as the fight over the niqab on Egyptian campuses does not seem to be ending any time soon.
The battle for niqab at AUC started in 2001 when a doctoral student at al-Azhar University was denied entry to the library for wearing a face veil, citing safety concerns. The student, who was then stripped of her library privileges after refusing to take off her face veil, sued the university. The court ruled that the face veil was a matter of personal and religious freedom, hence the university had no right to ban face-veiled students from accessing campus facilities.
In 2007, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that a ban on the niqab is a violation of constitutional rights, yet noted the necessity of women’s compliance with rules of identification followed by public institutions and which would require revealing their faces to security personnel.
The controversy about the niqab reached its peak in Cairo University in 2015 when former President Gaber Nassar issued a decree that banned all professors and their assistants from wearing the face veil during lectures or lab work, citing communication difficulties. The same applied to doctors and nurses at university hospitals. Affected faculty members, estimated at 77 at the time, filed a lawsuit, yet the Administrative Court upheld the president’s decision in 2016 citing article number 96 of the Egyptian Universities’ Regulation Law and which stipulates the necessity of “direct interaction with students.”
This was preceded by a series of disputes pertaining to the sitting for exams of face-veiled students as they became required to take off the niqab throughout the exam following a ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court in 2010. In 2009, a similar controversy erupted in al-Azhar when late Grand Imam Mohamed Sayed Tantawi forced a junior high student to take off her face veil and insisted it is a habit rather than a religious obligation. However, no measures were taken in al-Azhar towards banning the niqab whether for students or professors.
Salah Fawzi, legal advisor to Mansoura University, explains the difference between absolute and organizational ban when it comes to the face veil. “When the Administrative Court upheld the decision of Cairo University’s president, it was an organizational ban since the face veil hinders communication between professors and students or medical staff and patients, but they are allowed to wear it anywhere else on campus as long as they are not working,” he said. Fawzi explained that it is only when the ban is absolute that it becomes a violation of personal freedom. “The same should apply to the AUC since it is on Egyptian territories,” he added.
As for safety concerns, Fawzi said that all face-veiled women have to comply whenever they are asked to verify their identity. For Fawzi, comparing the problem of the face veil in Egyptian universities with that in France, for example, is not valid since in the latter it is more of a cultural problem. “There, women who are wearing the niqab are obviously not willing to integrate into the culture and this is a different story.”
Salafi preacher Sameh Abdel Hamid, who launched a campaign calling for boycotting the AUC, argued that absolute ban on campus is sheer discrimination and dismissed the security argument. “If students’ identities are verified at the entrance why should they keep the face veil removed while walking around campus?” he wondered, adding that even the argument of poor communication promoted in Cairo University was not applicable in the case of AUC. Abdel Hamid added that it was unfair of the university administration to take such a step right before the finals.
“This way they trap the students so that they don’t even have the choice to leave if they want to.” Saeid Sadek, professor of political sociology at the AUC, disagrees and sees that walking around campus with one’s face covered is in itself a security threat. “This is especially the case when American institutions in the Middle East keep receiving several threats and anyone can carry out a terrorist attack while covering his/her face and it would be impossible to identify who he/she is,” he said. “This gives the AUC every right to take all the necessary precautions and to set the rules it deems necessary to protect its grounds.” Sadek added that the AUC had hardly had any face-veiled students and that those who came to campus were usually external students who did research at the library. “I personally never had a face-veiled student.”
Despite the fact that the decision to revoke is official and face-veiled students were already informed they can go into campus without having to remove the niqab, AUC Communications Officer Rehab Saad said that this does not mean it is final. “This decision will be applied to face-veiled students who are already enrolled at the university, three in total, until they graduate” she said. “However, we don’t know what’s going to happen with students who enroll next year.” Saad explained that the ban was reversed following meetings between the representatives of the university administration and face-veiled students and added that this ban had no religious grounds whatsoever, but was mainly security-based.