Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Convincing Argument?

There has been much debate swirling around Sheikh Tantawi's recent decision to ban women from wearing niqab at Al-Azhar universities.

Dalia Ziada writing for Bikya Masr gave this commentary which I think brings up some points worth further consideration. Have a look and tell me what you think:

Click here to read article on Bikya Masr website


It’s not about Niqab, it’s about credibility

Dalia Ziada
11 October
2009 in Women

Hoda Ramzy, another student, was expelled from Al-Azhar
Institute in Shoubra, today, for merely wearing a niqab. She and her colleagues
who face the same problems with the administration decided to file a complaint
to President Mubarak in protest. On Facebook, a new group was launched to defend
women’s right to wear the niqab at school. Their argument revolves around the
fact that if you gave the right to “motabarijat” [i.e. the uncovered women] to
go around freely, then you should give equal rights to covered women.

local state-owned media and independent media channels, the controversy over
niqab is endless. There is a huge verbal battle between Salafi sheikhs and
Al-Azhar scholars. The latter is viewing the niqab as harmful to society, while
the former believes this is the ideal dress of the Muslim woman. Both have very
persuasive arguments.

I visited Alexandria couple of weeks ago. One of
the most shocking scenes I saw there was the huge number of women in niqab. Some
of my relatives wore it too. They are very convinced that this is how Muslim
woman should look. Some of them told me that to “show more gratitude to Allah,
the creator of our precious bodies, we should be covered from head to toe with
three layers.” When I asked her who told her this, she said a Sheikh on Al-Nas
TV (one of the most popular Salafi TV channels in Egypt).

On my latest
shopping tour, about one month ago, a newly married friend of mine joined me. We
had not seen each other for more than a year. She is an ordinary young woman who
has always been open-minded and loving life. When she got engaged to her current
husband, she wore the hijab (scarf) which most Egyptian women wear. I was
surprised when I saw her shopping for Abbayas (long baggy dress). She then told
me that upon the command of her husband, she will change her dress to wear the
niqab. She is not convinced that the niqab is a divine order; but she “loves her
husband and wants to obey him.”

It is true the number of women wearing
niqab in Egypt is increasing daily. Every woman has her own reasoning for
wearing it. This is not a matter of question now. We are not arguing whether it
is a basic right for women to dress the way they want. This is absolute and no
one can deny it. We are not even searching for the reasons or key players behind
this unexpected change of Al-Azhar policy from the extreme right to the extreme
left. Everybody knows that Al-Azhar played a great role in fueling religious
“piety” in Egypt over the past five years. They were pushed by the state to do
so as an attempt to re-attract the already religious Egyptian public who were
highly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood group.

The Muslim
Brotherhood represented itself as an independent voice defending moderate Islam
versus the state owned voice promoting another version of Islam tailored
according to the wishes of the regime. The political Islamist group succeeded in
attracting a large number of supporters by emphasizing Islamic principles as the
solution for Egypt’s economic and political problems.

The question,
which we all should consider now is why Al-Azhar scholars are not obeyed by the
public any more? The simple and direct answer to this very complicated question
is because Al-Azhar lost its credibility in the eyes of Egyptians. Al-Azhar has
been used as a tool in the hands of the regime to satisfy personal and elite
interests at the expense of Egyptian’s religious sympathies. Under the claim of
defending Islam, Al-Azhar committed some unforgivable violations against
open-minded intellectuals and fighters for freedom of expression and freedom of
belief. They cracked down on Bahai’s for merely calling for the right to have a
national ID card and other official papers that prove them being ordinary
Egyptian citizens. They also cracked down on Shiites and Sufis and distorted
their image in an unacceptable way.

Yet, the most unfair and shocking
violation was committed against 22-year-old blogger and student, Kareem Amer.
Kareem is now serving four years in jail for allegedly insulting Islam and
President Mubarak. He wrote an article criticizing Al-Azhar scholars’ pledge to
Mubarak to be the “prince of believers” and how this will make us – the people/
believers – deprived from our right to hold him accountable for corruption,
wrong decisions, etc. Kareem simply wrote this on his own personal blog. As a
result, he was expelled from university, interrogated and sentenced to four

Al-Azhar now is looked upon as a state owned tool. It is no
longer the independent religious institution respected worldwide. That is why
the Salafis have the upper hand in the niqab battle. And that is why our society
will grow more and more extreme.


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