The American University in Cairo is defending its decision to ban a student from wearing the niqab, the Islamic face veil.
AUC sophomore Heba el-Shabrawi who recently decided to cover her face, was told by school administrators earlier this month that she either remove the niqab, or attend another university.
El-Shabrawi could not be reached for comment, but the student told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram that the university is violating her religious rights.
"How can they teach us public freedoms, and then restrict my personal freedom to dress as I wish?" El-Shabrawi told the Egyptian newspaper. "Even if it is not dictated by religion, the issue is still one of personal freedom."
University administrators admit they did not have a written policy on the niqab prior to el-Shabrawi's case, but they say it is the first time in the school's 82-year history that the issue has even come up. A spokesperson for the school told iviews.com the niqab ban was a matter of security, not a religious issue.
"This policy was enacted because all members of the AUC community have a basic right to know with whom they are dealing, whether in class, the library, labs, the bathroom or anywhere else," said Nagwa Shoeb, director of public relations for the university.
Like most other American institutions in Egypt, security at the university is tight with high fences and guards posted at every entrance. Each student and staff member is required to hold a photo identification card, which enables him or her to enter the campus.
When asked whether the university could accommodate el-Shabrawi by providing female staff members to check her identity, Shoeb said it would be too difficult.
"Faculty are not security personnel and should not be put in the position of having to call security in order to verify the identity of students who come to class or office hours covering their face," she said. "It would be complicated and not feasible to continuously provide female staff members to check identity. The checking would have to happen, not just at the gates to the campus, but in every classroom or lab, in the bathrooms, and in the libraries."
AUC, widely known for its liberal arts education, employs both Americans and Egyptians as professors and administrators. El-Shabrawi told al-Ahram that none of her professors had a problem with her face veil.
And while no other student has worn the niqab to campus, AUC admits that an increasing number of its students are choosing to wear the hijab, the Islamic headscarf.
"I see it as a reflection of the society in which AUC operates. There is an increase in the numbers of women wearing hijab throughout Cairo and Egypt. AUC is very well integrated into Egyptian society. It is really an Egyptian university," said Shoeb.
Heba was allowed to finish the fall semester, which ended this January, but was told by officials that "if she wished to cover her face, there were alternate choices and other institutions where she could continue her studies."
Meanwhile, other AUC students have come to el-Shabrawi's defense and are reportedly circulating a petition to present to university president Richard Gerhart.
Supporters outside campus have also waged their own campaign to get the university to allow the niqab to be worn by students. Managers of the website Islamway.com are encouraging Muslims from all around the world to protest the university's ban, calling it a violation of Muslim women's rights.