By Hafez Abu Seada
The niqab is a custom, not a religious duty, Egyptian clerics finally concluded. Women who cover their faces are not obeying God but following ancient traditions predating Islam.
Al-Azhar's grand sheikh, shocked by the sight of children in the niqab at girls' schools, decided to speak out against the practice. He decided to put an end to the growing fanaticism inside Al-Azhar-run schools. But the conservatives didn't let him get away with it.
For the ultra conservatives, for the Salafi groups of this country, any attack on the niqab is an attack on their growing power. What the Salafis want is to send women back home, or better even to the Middle Ages.
Anyone who dares oppose the niqab is now fair game for the ultra- conservatives. Anyone who dares to criticise the niqab is considered a public enemy. And any woman who bares her face in public is seen as morally suspect.
But the fundamentalists have no argument or proof. The best of our scholars have concluded that there is nothing Islamic about this whole thing. Since the dawn of Islam, women have performed the hajj with their faces uncovered. So what is the fuss about?
This whole debate is not about religion. It is about power, about the fear in which the conservatives -- especially Salafi groups -- want to hold us. The Salafis want to undermine moderation. They want to bring down the civil state. That's why they are fighting the ban on the niqab. That's why they lashed out at the government for banning the face veil in college dormitories.
The niqab debate should have ended in 1996 when the Constitutional Court ruled against it. Over 10 years ago, Egypt's Supreme Court concluded that the niqab is a fashion not a duty. And now we're back to square one. I don't know why.
There is no legal argument for pro- niqab advocates. But they are fighting tooth and nail and, unless we're careful, they may win.
Women in this country have 64 seats in parliament today and they should be fighting for more rights. Women need to remove the social injustices they have had to endure over the years. The Salafis have no case and must be stopped.
This week's Soapbox speaker is secretary-general of the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation.