Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 July 2004
Issue No. 697
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Facing off

The press has once again made news out of the American University in Cairo. Yasmine El-Rashidi reports

In the core of downtown Cairo, adjacent to the monolith emblematic of Egyptian bureaucracy, the Mugamaa, the scattered buildings that comprise the grounds of the American University in Cairo (AUC) assume their symbolic place. In recent years, as Arab sentiment towards America's intrusive presence in the region soured, the university frequently became a scapegoat at the hands of the local press.

This past week, the university's long-standing ban on the niqab (face veil) on campus placed the institution once again in the media spotlight with newspapers slamming a prohibition of entry applications from Muslim women who wish to cover their faces.

The nub of the issue is an additional sentence in the 2004/2005 admissions application form. The sentence falls under section four in which applicants and their parents or legal guardians sign to a paragraph listing numerous university stipulations. After some general words of warning to prospective students about getting their applications in on time, applicants and parents must declare by their signature that "the student will comply with all university policies including the policy of prohibiting any form of face veiling on any premises of the American University in Cairo."

The proviso of this sentence is nothing new. "The face veil has been prohibited on campus for three years now," Farouk El-Hitami, vice president of student affairs, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The stipulation on the admissions application has been there for two years," he adds. Yet, slotted strategically amidst a list of requirements that have long been part of the university's code of operation (routine declarations about academic honesty or the university's right to review academic and disciplinary records), the prohibition of the niqab is perhaps skimmed over mindlessly by those seeking admission.

Controversy around the niqab issue comes at a time when religious sensitivity is high, with Muslims on the defensive, struggling to dissociate their religion from terrorism and extremism. This context, for some, explains the hullabaloo. "The press look for subjects of interest to readers -- things that will stir them up," El-Hitami remarks. "So they fished this one out of the dustbin."

Indeed, contention surrounding the niqab at AUC first erupted five years ago when a sophomore student wished to be fully face-veiled -- at the time unprecedented at the institution. The university promptly declared a "ban" on such attire, supporting its stance by quoting a 1994 regulation laid down by the Ministry of Education deeming the niqab "inappropriate in academic institutions" and prohibiting it on the basis of "security reasons". Matters peaked shortly after when an Al-Azhar graduate student was denied access to university grounds. She filed a lawsuit and the Cairo Administrative Court overruled the university's prohibition -- but only in her case.

In 2001, AUC issued a formal statement banning the niqab. The announcement referenced the Ministry of Education regulation, itself upheld in 1996 by a Supreme Constitutional Court decision. "[The regulation] is not against human rights, it's not against personal liberty, and it's not against their constitutional rights," Mohamed Ismail, a judge at the State Council was quoted as saying in the press at the time. "There should be a compromise between constitutional and legal rights on one hand and the security perspective and aspects of the educational system on the other."

He added that all academic institutions are technically required to follow the regulation. Given growing national religious fervour, few, however, do.

"This is a private institution and one that prides itself on a liberal arts education," El-Hitami recently re-affirmed to the Weekly. "The face veil does not tally with that. It indicates a certain tendency, and certainly tolerance, towards extremism. We are not willing to turn it [the university] into an extremist organisation, and for those who don't like it, there are many other universities they can attend."

At a university forum in April, AUC President David Arnold addressed the issue, saying the policy is in line with AUC's educational philosophy and is also a measure to ensure a secure and safe environment. "Having the ability to relate face-to-face in an educational and learning community is a very important value that we have to respect," he said. El-Hitami concurs. "We have a lot of face-to-face communication," he explained. "It is quite disturbing to many people to be talking to a veil."

The purported parallel between the banning of the higab (headscarf) in schools in France and that of the niqab here is one which university officials shrug off as "ridiculous". "It reflects an exaggeration," El-Hitami told the Weekly. "There is nothing wrong with the higab. It's not offensive to anyone. Almost half our female students are veiled, which is expected given that all over the country there is a growing interest in the veil."

On a relatively quiet summer morning the grounds of the university reflect that growing trend. But even amongst young veiled students the niqab stands for something more than religious observance. "The niqab is not the 'absolute' Islamic view," Sherine Mahfouz, a graduate student of broadcast journalism, told the Weekly. "It's more a statement of extremism. It goes beyond what as Muslims we are required to do. The university has the right to put regulations on the niqab for security reasons. I wouldn't feel comfortable if it was allowed."

Nearby, two listeners nod in agreement. All three women are veiled.

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