The government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sissi is increasingly concerned with how women dress
Gaber Nassar sits in his ornate office, behind a huge oak desk covered with piles of papers, as he explains why his university recently banned women from teaching while wearing the niqab, a veil that covers the face but reveals the eyes. “Everyone has the right to dress how they want, but on one condition: Don’t break the rules,” says Nassar, the president of Cairo University, one of Egypt’s oldest academic institutions.
Some members of Nassar’s staff disagree and filed suit to overturn the ban. He jabs his finger at a binder filled with details of all 77 female university employees who wear the niqab. Nassar says the ban was informed by research showing a correlation between classes taught by women who wear that veil and low grades. (He declined Newsweek’s repeated requests to share this evidence.) On January 19, a court upheld the ban, but the plaintiffs are expected to appeal.
Nassar insists the ban is not related to politics. But critics say it is part of the Egyptian government’s crackdown on dissent, particularly from citizens it suspects might support the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist movement. Since President Abdel-Fattah El Sissi came to power in July 2013 in a coup that ousted democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian government has effectively banned protests and imprisoned tens of thousands of people, both Islamists and pro-democracy activists.
The El Sissi government has also involved itself in the personal lives of Egyptians in ways the autocratic Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in 2011, never did. In the run-up to his election in 2014, El Sissi said, “State institutions have to help us regulate morals that we all think are problematic.” In November, he approved the creation of a committee designed to “improve the morals and values of Egyptian society.”
Analysts say this campaign stems from El Sissi’s wish to present the state as the true guardian of Islam and its values, rather than the ousted Muslim Brotherhood or the extremists of Daesh. “The threat to Egypt’s security is real, but the past two years show that the authorities’ heavy-handed response has only led to more division,” Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, said in a January report.
The battle over public morality is a daily one for many Egyptians—and the question of what women should wear has increasingly taken center stage. Critics say the Cairo University ban on the niqab—often misinterpreted as a sign of the wearer’s political leanings—is part of a wider movement by public institutions to control what women wear. In October’s elections, officials banned women from voting if they were wearing the niqab, while the prime minister’s elections adviser told international observers not to show up at polling stations in “hot shorts.” Last year, debates raged on social media over upscale Cairo venues that banned women wearing the hijab.
Wearing too little can get women into trouble too. When the newly appointed immigration minister, Nabila Makram Abdel Shahid, was sworn in as a Cabinet member this past September, a TV host criticized her for wearing short sleeves. Last April, belly dancer Safinaz (who goes by a single name) received six months in prison after being accused of “insulting the Egyptian flag” because she performed a dance while wearing a costume thought to resemble the national flag (she was acquitted in September). Last June, a Cairo court sentenced dancer Salma Al Foly to a year in prison with hard labor for “harming public morals” in a suggestive music video. The Egyptian Musicians Syndicate later banned revealing stage outfits.
If there is a model for how the government wants women to dress, it’s probably Egypt’s first lady, Intisar Amer, says Dalia Abdel Hamid of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. She favors the “Spanish-style” hijab, or head scarf, worn like a bandanna tied in a bun at the nape of the neck. Local news outlets have described her look as “conservative yet trendy” and “demure,” and have contrasted her with the “ultra-conservative” wife of Morsi, who wore a flowing veil.
Critics say the focus on public morals is an attempt to direct attention away from the growing conflict with jihadi militants and a struggling economy. El Sissi has spoken of his desire for Islam to undergo what he calls a reformation. “When Sissi talks about religious reformation, he wants religion to sound sensible and relevant,” says H.A. Hellyer of the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. “But he also wants it as much as possible to be a tool of the state.”
The government’s sartorial strictures may draw criticism, but polls suggest they are in line with public opinion. A University of Michigan survey in December 2013 found that only 14 percent of Egyptians believe women should be able to wear whatever they want. The survey found that 9 percent of Egyptians thought the niqab was the best way for a woman to dress, compared with 85 percent who favored one of several ways to wear the hijab. Only 4 percent said they thought women should wear their hair uncovered.
Even if they are in the minority, women who wear the niqab are insisting it is their right to dress as they wish. The plaintiffs in the suit against Cairo University say the ban infringes on their civil liberties. “They said there is a barrier to communication between students and professors. This is simply prejudice,” says one plaintiff, a professor who has taught at the Faculty of Medicine for 15 years while wearing the niqab. She asked to not be identified; the women involved in the court case have kept their identities secret from the media, fearing reprisals from the university for speaking out. “Their decision is political,” she adds.
The professor says the ability of students to see a teacher’s face has no bearing on that person’s effectiveness as a lecturer. Besides, she says, “In a lecture hall with 1,000 students and a male lecturer, I don’t think the people from the third row up can [even] see his face.”