CAIRO, Egypt – Egypt's top Islamic cleric is planning to ban students wearing the face veil from entering the schools of al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's premier institute of learning, according to an independent daily Monday.
A security official also told The Associated Press that police have standing verbal orders to bar girls covered from head to toe from entering al-Azhar's institutions, including middle and high schools, as well as the dormitories of several universities in Cairo.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to speak to the press, said the ban was for security reasons.
The moves appear to be part of a government campaign cracking down on increasingly overt manifestations of ultraconservative Islam in Egypt.
While a vast majority of Egyptian women wear the headscarf, only a few wear the niqab, which covers the face and is common in neighbouring Saudi Arabia which practices the more conservative form of Wahhabi Islam. The trend seems to gaining ground in the Arab world's most populous country.
There is no uniform religious opinion across the Muslim world about whether a head scarf – much less a face veil – is required.
The majority of Islamic scholars say the face veil is not required but is merely a custom that dates back to tribal, nomadic societies living in the Arabian desert before Islam began.
Sheik of al-Azhar Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi's plans came to light when he told a middle school student in a class he was visiting earlier this week to take off her niqab.
Tantawi was inspecting al-Azhar's schools at the start of the academic year to check on measures in place to stem the spread of swine flu, according to details of the visit published by the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Tantawi angrily told the girl that the niqab "has nothing to do with Islam and is only a custom" and made her take it off.
He then announced he would soon issue an order banning girls from entering al-Azhar schools wearing the niqab.
"Niqab has nothing to do with Islam...I know about religion better than you and your parents," the cleric was quoted as telling the student.
Tantawi left Cairo late Sunday on a visit to Tajikistan and was not available for comments. Calls to his deputies went unanswered.
However, Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a scholar in an al-Azhar affiliated research centre, said al-Azhar's scholars would back Tantawi if he issues the order.
"We all agree that niqab is not a religious requirement," Bayoumi said. "Taliban forces women to wear the niqab... The phenomena is spreading" and it has to be confronted, he added.
``The time has come."
Critics of the move, however, say the ban has little chance of being implemented. A previous directive by the minister of religious endowment to ban women preachers wearing the niqab from mosques was hotly contested. A ban on nurses wearing full veil was announced last year, but not enforced.
A researcher wearing the niqab prevented from using the library at the American University in Cairo in 2001 took her case to the Egypt's supreme court and eventually won. The court ruled a total ban on the niqab to be unconstitutional.
The court did recommend that women wearing the niqab be made to uncover their faces before female security guards to verify their identity.
On Saturday, scores of female university students protested outside al-Azhar university dormitory calling for the repeal of the decision banning fully veiled women from entering. There were similar demonstrations at Cairo University.
Sheik Safwat Hijazi, a scholar and preacher, said he would personally sue anyone who prevented his daughter or wife wearing full niqab from going about her daily life, including entering government offices.
"Preventing a woman from wearing what she wants is a crime," Hijazi said. "Whoever says the niqab is a custom is not respectable."
Hossam Bahgat, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the series of government decisions against the niqab are ``arbitrary" and while designed to combat extremism, only end up being discriminatory against women.
"The (veiled female students) are barred from government subsidized housing and nutrition because they are considered extremists," he said.