Egyptian minister stokes debate over full-face veil   

Gulf News  

Cairo: Egypt's religion minister has fuelled controversy over Muslim women's garb by vowing not to employ women who wear the niqab [full face veil] as religious counsellors.  

"The niqab is traditional and not an Islamic obligation for women," Mahmoud Zaqzouq, the Minister of Waqfs (Religious Endowments), told reporters in Cairo recently. 

His remarks came days after he expelled a niqab-clad employee from a meeting for refusing to remove the veil.  

"The religious counsellor should set an example of moderation. By wearing the niqab, this female counsellor promotes a tradition not demanded by Islam," he added. Zaqzouq's stance came more than one month after Minister of Culture Farouq Hosni caused a big stir by dismissing the hijab (a Muslim women's headscarf) as a 'sign of transgression'.  

"Though the niqab is not an Islamic duty, it represents a virtue for Muslim women," Abdul Sabour Shahin, a noted Muslim cleric, told Gulf News.  "It is worn by a pretty woman, who covers her face lest it should entice men.

It is also worn by women who have facial defects and do not want to attract attention to them," he argued. Shahin added that female religious counsellors, employed by the Ministry of Waqfs, were recruited to advise women only.  "So there is no problem in allowing them to wear the niqab." He denied that the full veil is a sign of religious extremism. 

"I think the minister's anti-niqab attitude is in line with the comment made by the Minister of Culture against the hijab." An increasing number of Egyptian women in this predominantly Muslim country are wearing the headgear or the full veil.  "This is a sign of Islamic awakening, which started after the military naksa [setback] suffered by Egypt at the hands of Israel in 1967," said Shahin.  

"At the time, the Egyptians realised that the defeat was because they deviated from the path of Allah. Now the majority of Egyptian women and female university students appear clad in the hijab and the niqab," he added. 

Last September, President of Helwan University Abdul Hayy Ebeid infuriated Islamists in Egypt when he ordered that niqab-wearing students should not be allowed into the dormitories of the institution, unless they agree to be checked by security women to verify their identities. 

Suad Saleh, a famed TV preacher, was meanwhile threatened with death for proclaiming on the private satellite TV Dream that it was wrong to consider the niqab an obligatory item of the Islamic attire. 

"The niqab was common in the Arabian Peninsula centuries before Islam and was not imposed by this religion," said Ameenah Nousir, a professor of Islamic philosophy.  "The face is one's mirror and identity.

So why should a woman hide herself behind this black veil?" she told this newspaper. "And how can a woman teach Islamic moderation while putting on the niqab, which is not an Islamic obligation?"  

"I cannot understand this intense attack against veil-wearers," said Fatma Ahmad, a female commerce student. "If scantily clad girls are allowed onto the campus and the workplace on the basis of personal freedom, why not apply the same principle to veil-wearers?" 

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