On Sunday, it seemed that children in Egypt had been banned from wearing hijabs to school after Education Minister Moheb Al-Refaei pronounced that Islam does not require girls to wear the hijab until they reach puberty.
The question of wearing religious veils is a contentious issue in Egypt, writes Siobhan Fenton of The Independent. Some academics believe that the root of this tradition lies in culture rather than having a theological basis.
“They are just children, they have to move freely and carry out activities,” El-Rafei told TV host Wael El-Ebrashy on the private satellite channel Dream 2.
School uniform legislation was revised in 1994 to ban girls under the age of 12 from covering their hair, resulting in fierce debate and charges of the policy being un-Islamic. In 1996, the Egyptian Supreme Court ruled the ban unconstitutional.
In March of this year, the issue gained attention again across Egypt when a girl was beaten and had a lock of her hair cut off by a teacher for not wearing her hijab to class.
Soon after the announcement was made, however, Egyptian Streets reported that the spokesperson for Egypt’s Ministry of Education had denied that such a plan had been implemented, according to state media Al-Ahram. The minister’s comments were his own, said the spokesperson, and added that people have the freedom to wear the hijab as they wish.
When Minister Al-Refaei made the announcement, he did not explain when the ban would begin or whether it would apply to all grade levels in Egypt. Also, there was no mention as to whether the ban would apply to private schools. It is still not clear whether the ban will be implemented at a later date, or how.
The renewed discussion about dress codes arose after Egypt’s Ministry of Education referred a school headmaster to investigation for wearing the jalabiya (a traditional Egyptian rural garment). Sharqia governate’s governor Reda Abdel Sallam referred the primary school’s headmaster and teachers for investigation for wearing “improper outfits.” Debate has been rampant after many restaurants, clubs, beaches, and pools have banned women dressed in the hijab. Egypt’s Minister of Tourism has said that any restaurants or tourism facilities banning the veil would be closed.
Minister Al-Refaei said the Ministry did not mean to embarrass or insult teachers, but emphasized that there had to be a certain level of professionalism at Egyptian schools. He proposed that clothing be provided to teachers at a subsidized price so that they could abide by proper dress codes. He said he was also working on raising salaries for Egyptian teachers.
Menna Alaa El-Din of AhramOnline reports that many on websites and social media have asked the minister to “focus on education rather than focusing on school-age girls wearing the scarf.” Others say the decision to ban the hijab suggested that the state is too weak to go through with the ban. Hany Kamal, the education ministry’s spokesman said: “I can’t force anyone to take the hijab off or put it on, this is something that would make me subject to legal accountability.”
According to the website Beliefnet, “hijab” is an Arabic word meaning ‘to conceal or hide from view’ and refers to modest dressing for Islamic women. In in modern times, it has come to define the headscarf that many Muslim women wear to hide their hair, neck, and often bosom.