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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.

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Hossam Baghat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says the government needs to focus on ways to promote a tolerant version of Islam rather than banning people’s personal and religious expression.

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“Of course we don't agree with what the niqab represents, but we believe strongly that taking punitive measures against women who wear the niqab is not an effective way to promote tolerance and a moderate interpretation of Islam,” he says.

Why Syria's ban unlikely to face court challenge

But in Syria, where courts do not enjoy the moderate level of independence of the Egyptian judicial system, the government’s ban will not likely face a challenge. That’s all right with Bassam al-Kadi, director of the Syrian Women Observatory, a women’s rights group in Damascus. He considers the niqab an extremist message that reduces women to sexual objects that must be covered.

Mr. Kadi says the rise of the niqab in Syria has been partly fueled, as it was in Egypt, by ideas imported from the Gulf. But it also has to do with the political isolation of Syria in the last five years, he says, during which Syria strengthened its ties with its more conservative neighbor Iran and continued its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

“Extremists have more and more power in the last five years, and they are changing Syrian society, “ says Kadi.

Niqab favored by burgeoning women's religious intellectual movement

But Landis says that in Syria, at least, the issue is a complex phenomenon that cannot simply be attributed to a wave of extremism. It actually marks a growing religious intellectual movement among middle-class women in Syria, he says. Religious groups led by women and encouraging study and intellectual thought are developing a growing following, particularly in schools, where women have carved out a space in the male-dominated workforce.

Many women donning the niqab are doing so of their own conviction, and are “independent and headstrong,” says Landis, who travels regularly to Damascus.

“It’s a way to assert themselves, to assert their individuality,” he says. “They’re going against prevailing social norms. Most of the women who do this, their families don’t like it.”

The movement includes elements of feminism, he says, which might be unfamiliar to Western women, to whom feminism conveys the idea of less clothing, not more.

In Egypt, a lower-class phenomenon

In Egypt, those who wear the niqab are more likely to come from low-income families. But even here, the reaction to the facial veil cannot be molded into a divide between the upper and lower classes. Amal, an Egyptian who works as a maid and earns a low monthly income, says she disagrees with the niqab.

“I wish they would ban the niqab here, too,” she says. “It brings a lot of problems. Sometimes men wear them and do bad things.”

Amal, who asked that her last name not be used, says she believes Muslim women should wear the hijab, the scarf that covers the hair, and dress modestly, but that the Koran does not tell women to cover their faces.

“Frankly, when someone walks behind me wearing the niqab, I'm afraid. I don't know if it's a man or a woman, or if they will do something bad.”

IN PICTURES: Behind the veil