Cablegate: Egyptian Government Pushes Back On the Niqab

DE RUEHEG #1918/01 2810644
P 080644Z OCT 09

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 CAIRO 001918



E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/07/2027

REF: A. CAIRO 202 B. CAIRO 945 Classified By: Economic-Political Minister-Counselor Donald A. Blome for reason 1.4(d)
1. Key points: -- (C) Leadership of both Islamic and secular educational institutions are increasingly critical of the niqab, a full facial veil exposing only the wearer's eyes, and have announced or intend soon to announce restrictions. These restrictions fall far short of a general prohibition. -- (C) On October 3, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, Grand Imam of Al Azhar and Egypt's ranking Islamic cleric, while speaking at an Al Azhar system girls secondary school, criticized the niqab, especially in a women-only environment. According to an Al Azhar spokesman, Tantawi intends to issue an order in the coming days banning the niqab from women-only institutes in the Al Azhar secondary school system. -- (SBU) According to media reports, when classes resumed on October 3 at Cairo University, Egypt's largest public university, women wearing the niqab were prevented from entering women's dormitories, apparently a new policy this school year.

2. (C) Comment: As salafist ideas have spread in Egypt, there has been a marked increase in conservative Islamic dress, including the niqab (refs A and B). While to date the GoE religious establishment has not appeared overly concerned with the spread of salafist ideas, recent steps to restrict the niqab - which we suspect are coordinated within the GoE - may reflect growing reservations about a brand of Islam some in Al Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf see as alien and difficult to control. ----------------------------- Al Azhar's Niqab Restrictions -----------------------------

3. (SBU) In recent days, local and international media have focused on GoE efforts to restrict the niqab. The story apparently began on October 3 when Sheik Mohamed Sayid Tantawi, Grand Iman of Al Azhar, told students at an Al Azhar system all-girls secondary school that the niqab is not religiously sanctioned in Islam. (Note: In his capacity as head of Al Azhar, Tantawi supervises Al Azhar University and a nation-wide network of primary and secondary schools with an estimated one million students. End note.) He also asked several female students in the audience why, as students at an all-girls school, they believed the niqab necessary or appropriate. Following Tantawi's appearance at the school, some media outlets reported that Tantawi intended to issue a fatwa banning the niqab.

4. (C) On October 5, Al Azhar public relations official Ahmed Tawfiq told us that Tantawi has no plans to issue a general ban on the niqab. Instead, in the near future, Tantawi, in his capacity as head of the Al Azhar institute system, will issue an administrative order barring students in all-female Al Azhar system secondary schools from wearing the niqab. According to Tawfiq, the niqab is unnecessary in all-female schools, can pose a security risk, and is not sanctioned in Islam. Tawfiq also said that Al Azhar is concerned that the niqab portrays Islam as an immoderate religion. ----------------------------- Other GoE Anti-Niqab Efforts -----------------------------

5. (SBU) According to media reports, Cairo University, a large state-run university which began the school year on October 3, is prohibiting female students wearing the niqab from entering female-only dormitories. Reportedly, 126 students have been effected. According to a university spokesman, the ban is for security reasons.

6. (C) Egypt's Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments), which supervises mosques and imams, continues a campaign launched in late 2008 to convince women that the niqab is not compulsory. On October 7, First Deputy Minister of Awqaf Shawqi Abdel Latif told us that while his ministry and the GoE have no objection to the niqab and no intention of banning it, the ministry is concerned that some women are wearing it out of a misguided belief that it is compulsory in Islam. CAIRO 00001918 002 OF 002 Scobey

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