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Veil ban: Why Syria joins Europe in barring the niqab

After issuing the veil ban on Sunday, which bars the full-face niqab veil from both public and private universities, Syria is now heading into waters that have proved difficult for Egypt. Courts there struck down similar bans.

By Correspondent / July 20, 2010

Veil ban: Two Syrian women wear the niqab, a face-covering Islamic veil, as they shop in Souk Al-Hamediah, Damascus' oldest market, Syria, Monday. Syria has banned the face-covering Islamic veil from the country's public and private universities.

Bassem Tellawi/AP

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Cairo

Syria has banned students and teachers at universities from wearing the niqab, the full-face veil that has grown in popularity there in recent years.

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The decree, which came Sunday on the heels of a move toward similar bans across Europe, is an attempt to preserve Syria's traditional role as the Middle East's bastion of secularism.

“Syria is adamant about its secularism,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “If the next generation is going to be raised to embrace the strict Islamic values for which the niqab is the expression, it will undermine the project Syria is trying to build, of secularism and coexistence of religions. “

IN PICTURES: Behind the veil

Syria’s Ministry of Higher Education issued the decree on Sunday, banning the facial veil from both public and private universities. A government official told Al Arabiya television that the niqab, which blocks all but the eyes from view, was “against academic principles.” Last month, the Education Ministry removed hundreds of primary and secondary teachers who wore the niqab from their teaching positions.

Secularism is particularly important to Damascus because the president comes from the minority Alawite Muslim sect. Though many sects of Islam and Christianity coexist in Syria, it is majority Sunni. And the regime is particularly sensitive to Islamism: Nearly three decades ago, President Bashar al-Assad’s father brutally put down an Islamist uprising, killing thousands of civilians by leveling the town of Hama, where the rebellion was centered.

By banning the niqab, Syria is now heading into waters that have proved difficult for Egypt in recent years, where courts have struck down bans on the niqab.

Gulf influence

The niqab has become increasingly visible in many societies across the Middle East, particularly in secular nations where miniskirts were once appropriate street attire for women. Some say it marks a wave of conservatism picked up by workers who move to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations and then bring those countries' conservative brand of Islam home with them.

The Gulf influence is often cited in Egypt, where the number of women wearing the niqab has increased exponentially over the last decade.

Egypt is less secular than Syria, but the regime suppresses Islamist movements, including the most powerful opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Several attempts to ban the niqab have been struck down by Egyptian courts in the past five years, including one by the American University in Cairo and attempts by the government to ban the veil in public university dormitories and during exams.

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