In Egypt, the senior cleric at one of the Muslim world's pre-eminent centers of Sunni Islamic teaching has banned female students and teachers from wearing the niqab - the full-face veil - in classrooms and dormitories.
The Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar, Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, says the niqab has nothing to do with Islam and is a sign of radicalism. Other Egyptian universities have taken similar positions, prompting civil rights activists to complain that the ban violates students' rights.
Many Islamic scholars believe that full-face coverings are not a religious requirement, but the modern expression of tribal customs and traditions that predate Islam. Such coverings are common in conservative states such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, though not in Egypt.
But the sheik's pronouncement is seen as a reminder of the country's difficult position as it tries to push back against the growth of conservative Islam across the region.
Student Hela Omar, 19, is petite, slender, dark-eyed and otherwise indescribable because of her loose robes and the cloth covering her face from the bridge of her nose down below her jaw. She understands that the niqab is not an Egyptian tradition, but she doesn't understand why Tantawi and some government ministers seem to see it as a sign of allegiance to radical Islam.
"Anything that covers the body is something that people should respect. I've lived in other countries like Yemen, and the niqab is normal there. So I don't understand why people here think it's extremist, or think it's too Islamist to wear. I just think it's a matter of modesty," Omar says.
Tantawi's announcement of the ban was clouded by reports that he spoke harshly to a young niqab-wearing student, embarrassing her in front of her middle-school class.
He denied speaking abusively to the girl and later clarified that he doesn't object to the niqab in public settings where men and women mix. He said the ban applies only to Al-Azhar's classrooms and dorms, which are already segregated.
Dia Rashwan, an analyst with the government-run Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says this is part of an ongoing struggle to define Egypt's cultural references. In the early 20th century, he says, the debate was over the hijab, the headscarf that is now quite common in Egypt, but was controversial at the time.
Rashwan says for Al-Azhar as an institution, it's a matter of defending its interpretation of Islam as the correct one. But for the health of the society, he sees it as a question of accommodating Egypt's various cultures without letting any one culture dominate.
"Egypt has many cultures. Some of them come from the Islamic era, others from the Mediterranean, others from the pharaohs. We have to respect them," he says.
The niqab debate has produced strange bedfellows, with civil rights advocates standing with the Islamists in defense of a woman's right to cover her face.
Hossam Bahgat at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said the ban further discriminates against women who are already struggling to succeed in a heavily patriarchal society.
Editor Rania al-Malky wrote in the English-language Daily News Egypt that rejecting the ban on the grounds that it deprives women of opportunity would only perpetuate what she calls "this cycle of psychological and social violence in the name of religion."
On the streets of Cairo, a number of niqab wearers hoped that solutions might yet be found. They said they would be happy to lift their veils so a guard could identify them at the gate, and also during exam time so that their teachers could be sure who was taking the test.
But if history is any guide, this debate is about much larger issues - such as where the Middle East's most populous country is heading, socially and culturally. It's a debate not likely to end anytime soon.
Peter Kenyon is a NPR foreign correspondent currently based in Cairo, covering Middle Eastern and North African countries from Syria to Morocco.
Sayed Tantawi actually overrode the reasons for his ban in his own word, "Egypt has many cultures. Some of them come from the Islamic era, others from the Mediterranean, others from the pharaohs. We have to respect them," he says.
It's quite quizzical he doesn't include a woman's right to wear the niqab, a form of respect.
IMHO, it's a matter of personal freedom that women should have as long as the practice does not impact a particular society in an adverse manner...
Quran, when read with proper references to the context of each Ayah, leaves no doubt about the boundaries and timeliness of each of its injunctions.I do not believe the a Veil has anything to do with the religeon. Many medieval practices were OK for the times. It may also be a good idea when a society cannot protect its women folk from aggressive male conduct. But, in societies where such protection is available, and men and women are civilized,the nations should be able to vote to ban the practice.
Before you say anything be sure of your source of argument. What i want to point out here is that, generally it is agreed that sources of Islamic rulings are four with principal ones the Quran and the sunna, then followed by ijma' (or concensus of companions/ulema) and qiyas. Now where does the niqab falls on these catgories, obviously ijma' as the origin began with the wives of the companions vis Abdullah bn Abbas and Abdullah bn Masud and there was no single objection from other companions to these highest beloved companions, and so it became an islamic ruling. Because of the saying of the prophet that the ijma of his companions MUST be followed. But we equally know that the standard ruling is for women even at the time of the prophet to cover their bodies excluding the faces an hands. So this makes ruling of niqab OPTIONAL till the end of times.
A single sheikh cannot come out in the 21st century CE to do away with the niqab. May be when we have an ijma of all the ulemas of the known muslim world (which clearly from the comments of most of them ulema this is impossible), the ruling on niqab is here to stay.
So those muslim women incline to using niqab shoul be allowed to do so. And those who want the ordinary hijab covering should likewise be allowed to do. ...Lana 'amaluna wa lakum 'amalukum.. should be the base.
Finally Sheikh Tantawi has erred but does that give right to any muslim to call him hypocrite or kafir? No. The judgement is with Allah and clearly from his (tantawi) backpedalling we can excuse his utterances to illiteracy of the deen, and pray for Allah's guidance for him.
I know Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said once that only thing should be visible on woman ... He pointed towards hands and the face.
So leisha sherrell, where does it says that Niqab is mandatory in Islam for woman.
Sheik Tantawi did a courageous deed for islam.
The so-called scholar went back on his statement, once a lot of people started asking for his head. If you are interested, read the original account of the context of the exchange published originally.
Al-Azhar has been worthless for over a century, with worthless top "scholars" and a bogus claim of being a center of religious learning.
"niqab is a culture not a cult or devotion"
what the Sheik said should have not made all this noise, it`s just that there is some people fighting against niqab, and they they don`t dare starting the war
so once they heard the Sheik`s declaration the got an opened door...
Who ever is obsessed in wearing it, needs to go to Yeman, Sudan, Somalia, Afganistan to anyother part of the world that is backward, runned down, behind, and trapped in the stone ages.
You point out that in hajj, women do not wear niqab. Thats right but why did the prophet say this. The prophet said this because the women came to hajj wearing niqab. For whatever reason, the prophet said **IN HAJJ**, do not cover your face. The logic is quite clear.
As for prophets wives - they are the models. Yes it may have been for their protection; but also Muslimah should aspire to be like them in everything. Appearance is one factor. BTW, the wives of the sahaba also wore the niqab.
Despite all, I say the scholars know more. Qardawi has a very practical position. He says it is not obligatory to wear the niqab. But if a woman want to imitate the wives of the prophet, then why not. After all, most people in the world do not complain of women wearing mini-skirts etc... so why do people complain if a woman is modest
Am sorry US, Canada or whatever you called them do not represent islam in any form. Am sorry to tell you that your comment is ill regarding principle of islam plus you need to have adhab. It would have been much better you if dont mention Jihadist or even mentioning muslim countries and branded them as unislamic. Your statement is wrong sir. You cant brand entire muslim countries as mockers of islam. US, Canada etc mock islam than others. "Sucide Bombers" is not what they wish but the conditions they found themselves. You live in America but you dont know what it means to be oppressed by eiteh foreign nations or your own leaders. You claim Jihadist is not islamic but Jihad is mentioned in the Quran. Please review your Iman before you leave comment next time and dont be like munafiq. I also condem your attitude towards muslim men and women in developing and muslim nations that they are less educated. what's education? is education neccesarily mean western education? Your thought is comletely irrational. You've been nationalistic and you do not sound islamic. If a county should attack America, am sure you will defend America, isnt it? so muslims have the right to defend themselves from foreign occupiers
The other day I was in Vncouver (Canada). I saw muslim girls coming out of school wearing scarf and tight blue jeans. Are tight jeans modest dress? strange, is it not?
I wonder if this whole thing is nothing but political hypocrisy.