Early on Sunday, a report appeared in Egypt’s Youm 7 newspaper that Egypt’s Ministry of Education would ban children from wearing the Islamic headscarf (hijab) at school. The report was based on an interview with the Minister of Education Moheb El-Rafei on the Egyptian television show, Ten in the Evening. During the interview, hosted by Wael El-Ebrashy, the Minister said Islam does not call upon girls to wear the hijab until they reach puberty. “Imposing the Islamic headscarf on primary-level students by some people is unacceptable,” he said.
Later the same day, after vociferous debate around the topic on social media, Hany Kamal, the Education Ministry’s spokesperson, “clarified” the minister’s statements. Mr. Kamal said the minister’s comments on TV about the hijab were taken out of context, and any news of a hijab ban is unfounded. “There’s no such thing as a hijab ban; wearing the hijab or taking it off is a personal freedom,” Mr. Kamal told Ahram Online.
The debate around the hijab is not new in Egypt. It has been a hot topic, particularly since the rise of political Islam in the Seventies. The debate was reignited recently, however, as part of Egypt’s soul searching for its “moderate Islam,” particularly after the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Morsi in 2013. The anti-Morsi coalition comprises unharmonious sub-groups, with various social and religious attitudes. For example, Egypt’s Al-Azhar scholar and ex-grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, who raised many eyebrows when he asserted, “whoever obeys President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi obeys the Prophet, and whoever disobeys him disobeys the Prophet,” also has very harsh views towards non-hijabi women. In one TV interview, Sheikh Ali Gomaa said women who reject the hijab are “stupid, naive, and ignorant.” Later, in another interview, he asserted that women who do not wear the hijab have dropped their right not to be looked at by men, a comment that was widely interpreted as a subtle justification for harassment.
Others among Sisi’s supporters have more liberal views. Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, head of Al-Azhar University, told a student to remove her niqab when he spotted her during a tour of an Al-Azhar affiliated school, the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported this week. His remarks have triggered angry responses, even a demand for his resignation.
I have written before that women with or without Islamic headscarves should be accepted and respected in Egypt. This freedom of choice is for adult women (or at least girls post puberty); however, imposing hijab on children is not freedom, but the despicable robbery of children’s rights to enjoy their childhood. It is already tough to be a girl in Egypt. Many girls are denied their basic rights to play and enjoy life.
If Egypt under Sisi is serious about finding middle ground in Islam, then it should not backtrack on wise decisions such as banning the hijab in primary school. The Egyptian leadership cannot ban political Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood while simultaneously allows semi-official salafism to flourish in society. If the government continues to do so, its war against extremism will be doomed to failure.