Female students at Cairo University are of the opinion that wearing the controversial face veil is infact protective and acts as a barrier against sexual harassment.
- Egyptian students wearing the niqab, a veil which covers the face except for the eyes, exit Cairo University
- A Cairo University student wearing a niqab stands outside the university dormitory
"I wear the niqab essentially to avoid harassment on the street and on public transport," said law student Marwa Mohammed, 19, her eyes visible only through the slits in the black veil that covers her entire face.
AdvertisementBut if conditions changed and she was not subjected to harassment would she take it off?
She would not, because "the veil gives me respect, and people look at me differently." She implied that sexual harassment would exist as long as young men looking for work and housing remained frustrated in their efforts.
"What will change? The cost of living? Unemployment? Or the excessively high cost of housing?" Marwa asked, her kohl-stained eyes giving away a hidden smile.
"As long as young people don't have the means to get married, harassment will continue," she added.
The hijab, the Islamic head scarf that covers the hair and neck, is worn by most Muslim women in conservative Egypt, and religious authorities say that wearing it is an obligation of the faith.
But the niqab, which has been gaining in popularity, has been driving a wedge between women such as Marwa and Egypt's highest religious authorities.
In October, Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, Grand Imam of the prestigious Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning, ignited a heated debate when he said the niqab was merely a tradition not linked to religion, and that women would be banned from wearing it in schools and universities.
But on Wednesday, an Egyptian court caved in to opposition to the religious ruling and placed a stay on the ban.
Now, religious authorities who oppose the niqab and women who favour it are polarised over the issue.
The niqab-wearing students at Cairo University say they are adhering to a precept and repeat what seems to have become their mantra: "Of course the niqab is an obligation."
It is an Islamic duty, "particularly in the times we live in, where sexual harassment is so common," explained 18-year-old Aya, who studies Arabic literature and has been wearing the niqab for three months.
Sexual harassment is common in Egypt. According to a 2008 study by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights, 83 percent of the country's women had experienced sexual harassment.
There is growing concern by the government and Al-Azhar authorities over the niqab, which is associated in Egypt with the ultra-conservative Salafi school of thought that is practised mostly in Saudi Arabia and parts of Yemen.
Authorities say the niqab is also linked to security, allowing anyone to hide behind the veil. In schools, they say, anyone can pose as a student and sit for an exam in the place of another.
Some university officials have even cited instances in which male students have tried to enter female dormitories by wearing the niqab as a disguise.
One female student at Cairo University charged that the authorities are trying to ban the niqab to paint Egypt's conservative society in a different light -- one more acceptable to the West.
"The government wants to ban the niqab to copy Americans and foreigners, to say that Egypt is a modern, developed country," said student Fatma Nasser.