Closing Pandora's box?
Is the ban on the wearing of the face veil in Syrian schools and universities motivated by support for secularism or by fear of the influence of Islamist trends, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus
The Syrian minister of education's recent decision to transfer 1,200 women teachers wearing the niqab, or full face veil, from classroom teaching to administrative jobs has given rise to various theories regarding its motivation.
Was this a further move towards secularism on the part of what is already a secularist state, or was the move motivated by more pragmatic considerations, such as a concern that a teacher wearing the niqab would not be able to communicate fully with her pupils?
Some days after the decision affecting schools, the minister of higher education also ordered the presidents of the country's universities and educational institutes to ban students wearing the niqab from registering for classes or coming onto campus for security reasons.
Since it could be difficult to ascertain a student's identity if she was wearing the full face veil, "hostile or criminal elements could infiltrate the student body," one minister said.
Both decrees were met by surprise among Syrian commentators, with a variety of responses forthcoming on the part of ordinary people, intellectuals and religious figures. The Syrian and Arab media, as well as Arab public opinion, focussed on the fact that the Syrian regime is explicitly secular, with many commentators stressing this point.
However, certain Syrian commentators noted that the Syrian regime might not be considered fully secular, since the constitution does not separate state from religion, stating instead that Islam is the religion of the head of state and is a source for legislation.
At the same time, Syria's family and personal status laws remain much the same as they were when they were first codified, these pertaining to issues such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, guardianship, and the status of women.
The background to recent developments over the wearing of the niqab in the country's schools and universities can be traced back to four decades ago, when the late president Hafez Al-Assad allowed, and even encouraged, moderate Islamist groups to organise as long as their activities did not contradict the lines set down by the regime and they did not claim to be political parties.
Since then, the regime has even used such groups in support of its interests, and over the past 40 years thousands of mosques have been built in Syria in a sign of growing religious observance. According to semi- official statistics, Syria is now home to more than 9,000 mosques, or one mosque for every 2,300 citizens.
More than 120 religious education institutes have been established and 600 higher institutes for religious learning opened that are affiliated to mosques. More than 30 schools supervised by qubaysiyats (female religious preachers) have opened their doors, dispensing all levels of education.
Yet, there has also been controversy over the regime's increasing willingness to accommodate religious groups. In the early 1970s, the Syrian authorities allowed conservative female preachers to practice after decades of working clandestinely, these preachers, called qubaysiyats after the founder of the movement, Sheikha Mounira Al-Qubaysi, being encouraged on the grounds that their activities did not touch on politics.
According to some statistics, the number of qubaysiyats now working in Syria has reached 50,000. All of them wear a similar attire of blue or black abayas (long robes) depending on religious rank, a pulled-back veil and flat shoes, a dress code that allows the preachers easily to recognise each other.
Qubaysiyats have long gathered in private homes to listen to various preachers, and they have been criticised because of their alleged lack of formal religious training. Some qubaysiyats have also been criticised for their strict interpretations of Islam, which have included discouraging children from watching television, seeing it as a corrupting medium.
They have also argued for unorthodox, quasi-feminist interpretations, such as arguing that a wife should demand a wage from her husband for nursing the common offspring, for example.
The rise of the qubaysiyats in Syria, allied to a growth in the number of mosques in the country, has been seen as evidence of growing religiosity. In the 1950s, no female students wore the niqab at Damascus University, according to one Syrian commentator, and students wearing the hijab, which only covers the hair, were also uncommon. Most students wore western clothes regardless of their social class or religious beliefs.
Even on the streets of Damascus those wearing the hijab were usually older or working-class women, or they were women from the capital's older districts who observed traditional dress codes. Many Syrian women prided themselves on being among the first Arab women to receive a modern education and to participate fully in political, cultural and social life.
Yet, half a century on it is now common to see women wearing the hijab and niqab in Syria. Whether at the offices of the hajj agency, which organises pilgrimages to Mecca, or in government offices, the scene is similar, and business women working in banks and in the private sector very often wear the hijab.
A majority of female students at universities, educational institutes and schools wear the hijab, and several wear the niqab. While half a century ago a man engaged to be married would likely insist that his future wife should take her veil off after marriage, today the situation has largely been reversed, with Syrian men demanding that their fiancées don the veil after marriage.
Until the recent decrees regarding the wearing of the niqab at schools and universities, few in the media or in government addressed this phenomenon. Officially, the state has ignored the trend, since it has not posed a threat to the regime. Its relaxed attitude towards the growing numbers of Syrian women wearing either the hijab or the niqab has contrasted with its banning of political parties, civil-society organisations and human rights groups.
According to researcher Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, the "conditions have now evolved towards a veiled society and segregation, not only between the sexes, but also between different religious sects and ethnicities."
"Talk of 'cultural invasion' and the Arab heritage have gained momentum, and political hostility towards the West has become a kind of cultural animosity."
While the regime has up to now tended to ignore the issue, some secular groups in Syria have expressed concerns about the "Islamic tide" they say is sweeping the country. Some secularists believe that Syria is on the way towards becoming fertile ground for fundamentalist groups, but most ordinary people disagree, saying only that religion plays a major role in most people's lives.
However, the country's secularists are closely monitoring the growth of conservative religious movements in the country in attempts to understand a phenomenon that has apparently taken root in Syrian society.
Many secularist commentators believe that the increasing religious observance in Syria is "a natural reaction to political conditions and the stifling of political activity." It is "in response to rising corruption and unemployment, as well as anxiety over the country's poor economic conditions," such commentators say.
Analysts also say that many members of the younger generations may have found answers to religious questions outside traditionally sanctioned channels. Some analysts have expressed their surprise that the country's security forces, known for their firm response to Islamist groups, have ignored the phenomenon of growing religious observance.
Some believe that the security forces do not want to be seen as anti-religious, a fear that some may have manipulated to expand their activities.
Another point of view asserts that the Syrian authorities have only seemingly ignored fundamentalist trends in recent decades, monitoring them closely instead and acting at the first signs of real activity.
Some months ago, a closed seminar on secularism at Damascus University attended by no more than 100 people from the ranks of progressives and democrats was banned by the authorities, while two weeks ago a conservative cleric was allowed to preach in Aleppo in the north of the country in a sermon attended by 6,000 people.
Religious programmes have a prominent place in Syria's broadcast media, similar to such programming in the more conservative Arab states.
The ban on the wearing of the niqab in Syria's schools and universities comes at a time when women wearing similar veils have also been banned in similar locations in Europe, though of course the reasons for the bans are different.
In general, it can sometimes appear that there is a fear in Syria that religious groups are able to manipulate religion to their own ends, convincing people that their goals are purely religious and reiterating their support for the regime while actually working to undermine it.
There is a feeling that a terrible truth may one day be unleashed from this Pandora's box.