Egypt court rules against US university on face veil

Cairo, Egypt - An Egyptian court ruled on Saturday that a U.S.-accredited university in Cairo was wrong to bar a female scholar who wears an Islamic face veil from using its facilities, court sources and a lawyer for the woman said.

The American University in Cairo, seen as a bastion of Western liberal education in Egypt, had revoked the woman's longstanding library privileges after she donned the niqab, a face veil that leaves only the wearer's eyes uncovered.

In its ruling, a special chamber of the High Administrative Court upheld a 2001 court ruling that the school could not bar Iman al-Zainy from its campus over the niqab because her decision to veil was a matter of personal and religious freedom.

Hossam Bahgat, a human rights lawyer who was part of Zainy's legal team, described the ruling as a precedent-setting victory for "women's autonomy over their body and dress code".

"The court said in the strongest of terms that it is up to women to decide about their clothing, and that women should not be discriminated against because of the clothes that they choose to wear," he told Reuters. "A complete ban on the niqab is now outlawed as a matter of principle."

The American University in Cairo said it was consulting with lawyers following the decision, but that some of the principles mentioned by the court appeared to support its position.

Court sources said Saturday's ruling does allow the university some leeway in placing restrictions on the niqab due to public necessity. Female students, for example, could be required to reveal their faces at the university gate to a designated male security guard or female staff.

In 2001, Zainy was a doctoral student of English at Egypt's religious al-Azhar University but had for over a decade held privileges at the American University in Cairo library.

Bahgat said Zainy, who has since obtained her Ph.D. and was pursuing the case out of principle, did not object to revealing her face at the campus gate for security reasons.


The American University in Cairo, whose downtown campus is a prominent central Cairo landmark, said that while it recognised the need to respect the religious values of students, it had barred the niqab due to safety concerns.

Egyptian authorities have feared that Islamic militant groups that fought a 1992-1997 campaign to topple the government could use the niqab as a disguise.

The American University in Cairo has been seen as a potential target for Islamic militant groups, and students and faculty must already pass through a metal detector and show identification cards to guards to gain access.

"The policy prohibiting face veiling was established by the university because all members of the AUC community have a basic right to know with whom they are dealing, whether in class, labs or anywhere else on campus. It is not a religious issue," the university said in a statement after the ruling.

The university said the court verdict was not the final word in the case. Court sources and Bahgat said the decision, by a special chamber of the court's most senior judges that is tasked with unifying conflicting legal rulings, could not be appealed.

While the niqab is banned at the university, students are allowed to wear the more common Islamic headscarf, the hijab, which covers a woman's hair but leaves her face visible. Many Muslim women see the veil as a sign of piety and morality.

Students at Egyptian state universities are generally allowed to wear the niqab, although they have sometimes faced resistance by university administrations.