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October 9 2009

Challenging Convention in the Middle East

Nicole Kurokawa Neily

Two interesting developments have come out from the Middle East this week.

First, the full face veil will be banned from female-only classrooms in Egypt's Al-Azhar University, on the heels of an earlier decision by Cairo University, a state-run school, banning female students from wear the niqab in women's dormitories. From the Agence France Presse:

"The Supreme Council of Al-Azhar has decided to ban students and teachers from wearing the niqab inside female-only classrooms, that are taught by women only," a statement said.

The ban extends to women's dormitories and to schools affiliated with the university, it said.

The face-veil, or niqab, is worn by some devout Muslim women. Local press reported that Mohammed Tantawi, head of Al-Azhar, said last week that he intended to ban the practice in the university.

The supreme council's statement added that Al-Azhar does not oppose the niqab, which it said only a minority of Muslim scholars consider an obligation, but it opposes "imprinting it on the minds of girls."

These are not isolated instances, however. As the article points out, "The government has shown concern over the trend. The religious endowments ministry issued booklets against the practice, saying the niqab is not Islamic, and the health ministry wants to ban it among doctors and nurses."

And in Saudi Arabia, a new university has expanded opportunities for women.

From The Washington Post:

Under Saudi Arabia's strict constraints, Saudi women like Qurashi and Aqeel may neither mingle with men nor drive. But at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened last month on this sprawling site 50 miles north of Jiddah, men and women take classes together. Women are not required to wear traditional black head-to-toe abayas or veil their faces -- and they can get behind a steering wheel.

"I don't think religion should have anything to do with higher education," said Qurashi, a 23-year-old biological engineering graduate student.

Both cases have sparked outrage among hard-line religious clerics, with some making not-so-veiled threats against this "assault" on decency and tradition. Fortunately, not everyone agrees that such liberalizations will lead to the downfall of society - one Saudi paper even asserted, "It's the sort of thinking that, if not for the King, would have kept this country wandering the desert on the backs of camels in search of water and pasture." A few years ago, such a retort from a newspaper would have been unthinkable -the mere fact that such a dialog is even taking place indicates an important shift in societal perceptions.

These courageous individuals and organizations deserve special recognition for their efforts to break down barriers and push back against the inhumane ideology of subordination. Hopefully many more will follow their lead in the future.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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