Egypt's al-Azhar bans full-face veil in female-only classes

Cairo, Egypt - Egypt's leading religious authority and university has banned students wearing full-face veils, or niqab, from entering female-only classrooms and dormitories, media reports said Friday. In an emergency meeting late Thursday, the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar decided to ban students and teachers from wearing the niqab inside dormitories, classrooms and examination halls, as long as supervisors are women, the independent daily al-Masry al-Youm reported.

Al-Azhar, a millenium-old university and mosque complex is widely regarded as one of the main seats of Islamic learning.

"Al-Azhar isn't against the right of Muslim women to wear the full-face veil, but it is against wearing it in the wrong place," said Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi.

Tantawi vowed to ban the niqab in al-Azhar affiliated schools, after ordering a female student to remove her niqab when he was visiting a school last week, saying that "the niqab is a tradition that has nothing to do with Islamic faith and obligations."

Controversy over Tantawi's remarks stirred controversy in the country, and an Egyptian Islamist lawmaker demanded the Sheikh's resignation, calling the imam's decision "totally irresponsible."

The decree also comes few days after the Ministry of Higher Education ordered female students to remove the face veil upon entering the university dormitories.

Although the ministry said the decision aims at preventing men from sneaking inside the female-only dormitories disguised as women after 15 men were caught last year, dozens of Egyptian students protested on Wednesday their exclusion from Cairo University's dormitories because they wear the niqab.

Conservative groups described these decisions as a proof of the government's desire to tighten the noose on Islamists.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia, where the state enforces a conservative brand of Islam, most Egyptian women wear the hijab, or headscarf, and the full niqab is rare.