CAIRO: An Egyptian NGO has demanded an initiative that wants to ban the face veil due to its “threats to national security and identity” to reconsider their target and work on “issues of concern to citizens;” a member of the initiative has said the niqab “intimidates him.”
“This campaign flagrantly discriminates against women, incites violence against women and girls in Egypt, and violates United Nations conventions and agreements that support women’s rights,” Equality for Development Studies Foundation (EDSF) stated Thursday.
In an interview with The Cairo Post, niqab-wearing Mona Fathelbab said “when I see banners and posts with picture of a woman in niqab crossed out, I feel very upset, because it means there is no equality and that there is a wish to exclude a societal group.”
“I would feel as upset if I saw a picture that depicts a non-hijabi crossed out in a campaign that demands women to cover their hair,” said Fathelbab, a family medicine specialist at a government medical facility in Cairo’s blue-collar district of Basateen.
Anti-niqab initiative: any reactions?
On Tuesday, an initiative calling for banning the niqab at schools, universities and government agencies was launched by a number of public figures, including Nabil Zaki, spokesperson of the social party of Tagammu, Hoda Badran, head of the General Federation of Egyptian Women, Samir Eleish, secretary-general of Constitutional Life Seminar and Nour al-Hoda Zaki, a leading politician at the Nasserite Party.
“Our Egyptian society is entitled to prevent jeopardizing its identity and culture,” Badran said during the press conference on launching the initiative.
“This is human rights; to protect our society, small and large, to protect our patients who encounter this, protect our students who must see the face of that lady who teaches them, and most importantly, national security,” Badran during the news conference launching the initiative.
The initiative, which promises to propose to their idea to the parliament, says that niqab mars the Egyptian identity, poses security threats and impedes social interaction. It also argues that niqab is not obliged by Islam, which is a contested issue among theologians, but mainstream Islamic scholars have said it is not obligatory.
“We will always be against persistent and malicious attempts to impose a claimed tutelage on Egypt the homeland and Egyptian, and against erasing the Egyptian identity and losing landmarks to a civil state,” media professional Dina Farouk said at the conference.
For his part, Eleish said that women may dress as they please, “but do not break my own freedom, do not intimidate me.”
In September 2015, Cairo University banned its academic staff from wearing niqab inside classrooms because it “hampers communication necessary to the education process;” the Administrative Court upheld the decision in January 2016 after some lecturers filed a lawsuit to overrule the decree.
Al-Azhar Professor of Religion and Philosophy Amena Nosseir has told the media several times in the past weeks that niqab, in fact, “belongs to the Jewish Sharia,” applauding Cairo University’s decision.
Head of Cairo University Gaber Nassar decided in February 2016 to ban doctors and nurses who work at the university’s medical facilities from covering their faces only while handling a patient.
“Some of the anti-niqab criticism is valid and some is not, but valid criticism can be taken into account without denying me the right to dress like I want. For example, at any government institution, any official is entitled to demand to see the face of the woman in question to make sure of her identity,” Fathelbab, 35, said.
She added that facial communication is important in education, but represents one of many factors; hence a teacher without niqab may still fail at delivering the information, noting that students may be surveyed to tell whether they understand concepts taught by their niqabi instructor.
She continued to say that “many patients wear niqab themselves, and they feel comfortable dealing with a doctor or a nurse who also wears it; niqab does not affect the reception or treatment of a patient and if any doctor fails to provide the service expected, she can be questioned.”
At schools, some niqabi teachers who teach primary students uncover their faces inside classrooms as long as there is not an adult male present.
Thus far, no NGO has published an official statement in reaction to the initiative, whether to support or condemn it, except for EDSF.
EDSF cited the Article 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW,) which states that discrimination includes impairing the recognition of women’s fundamental freedoms in political, economic, social, cultural, and civil fields.
EDSF also cited the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW,) whereby violence results in “physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion of arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”
Further, the NGO mentioned the Egyptian constitution, whose article 54 states that “personal freedom is an inherent right.”
Niqab fears go both ways
People who support the anti-niqab initiative have voiced fear that a man may hide behind a niqab, and that women may use the niqab to hide their identities to perpetrate any form of crime; some have linked it to “terrorism.”
For its part, EDSF said “the claims that women and girls who wear niqab are potential terrorists or suicide bombers that must be confronted is in itself intellectual terrorism that only brings about societal division and tensions between social groups.”
It also expressed its surprise that human and women’s rights leaders partake in the “abhorrent idea,” saying that human right is an “integral whole.”
Meanwhile, Fathelbab is not intimidated by the society in general, but rather by the potentiality of anti-niqab legislation.
“I feel scared when I see anti-niqab campaigns because I am worried I would be forced to forsake my right to cover my face publicly although I do not wish to reveal my face.”
“Some people like the niqab and some people do not, but I do not feel that anyone wishes to do something against me. Neither niqabis nor people who want to ban it are a majority.”
Journalist Nesma Abdel-Azim, 28, told The Cairo Post “women against the anti-niqab initiative are the first to feel frightened once a niqabi approaches them on the street or the metro, but they must appear pro-freedoms so no one says they are discriminatory.”
“Do not defend something that threatens your own personal security under the premise that it is freedom. This is not freedom,” Abdel-Azim said.
Albeit rare, it has been reported that a man in niqab is arrested for harassing women or men. Many beggars and vendors who ride the metro or public transportation to sell their goods wear niqab.
Hijab was rarely seen in big cities in Egypt before the 1970s, and was understood to be only worn by women in rural areas; niqab existed nearly exclusively among tribes in Sinai and the Western Desert.
Some intellectuals, including famous author Alaa al-Aswany, believe that Egyptians’ mass emigration to Gulf states to work starting from the 1970s have caused the shift in Egyptian women’s dress code, as they returned to Egypt with the idea of the hijab and the abaya, a long, loose fitting cloak designed for women.
Egyptian NGO EDSF said in the statement that culture, enlightenment campaigns, freedom of expression, promoting for a secular state by enacting legislation that support human rights and cultural and social pluralism are the means to counter extremism.
It called on feminist and human rights organizations to stop “practices detrimental to the path of women’s rights in Egypt” and to spread human rights amongst all.
“I do not know why every time there is a talk on some law to impose wearing something or taking something off, this law will always target women,” Egyptian novelist Ghada Abdel Aal wrote on Facebook Thursday.