Egypt's rulers divided over schoolgirl veils

TWO DEPARTMENTS of the Egyptian government are at loggerheads over the banning of the hijab - the Islamic headscarf - from girls' schools.

A row has flared between the secular, liberal-dominated Education Ministry, which banned girls from wearing the veil in school, and al-Azhar (the official Islamic church) backed by the Ministry of Religious Endowment, which condemned the decision of the Education Minister, Hussein Kamel Bahaa-el-Dine. Mr Bahaa-el-Dine's administrative order compelling girls' secondary schools to impose a single uniform was intended to settle the argument about the veil.

Mr Bahaa-el-Dine's decision was prompted by the findings of a committee which investigated parents' complaints that their teenage daughters were being taught extreme views and had been intimidated by some ultra- orthodox Muslim teachers into taking up the veil. The committee recommended removing more than 1,000 teachers from teaching duties and suspending more than 200 for 'forcing their political views on pupils and interfering with the curriculum'.

The liberal Dr Bahaa-el- Dine did not anticipate the swift counter-attack by the clergy and fundamentalists. They mobilised al-Azhar to issue a fatwa, or religious edict, condemning his decision as an attempt 'to ban young women from covering their hair as Islam required'.

Al-Azhar's swift reaction is unprecedented. 'This is new to Egypt,' said the liberal Egyptian historian Ahmad Osman. 'Making an issue of the veil is turning the clock back some 80 years.' He noted that in the past only extreme Muslims forced women to cover their hair by intimidation or shouting abuse, and al-Azhar has never before issued a fatwa limiting individual choice, let alone contradicting government policy.

Under pressure, Mr Bahaa- el-Dine retreated and said headmistresses could not insist that girls should remove the veil. Meanwhile the Minister of Religious Endowment endorsed al-Azhar and called for teachers who encouraged Muslim girls to remove the veil to be prosecuted.

Mr Barhaa-el-Dine's retreat was criticised by the liberal Wafd party and left-wing oposition groups. The incident has boosted the credibility of secular Egyptian politicians and feminist groups who have argued for more than a year that Islamic extremists were becoming increasingly influential in Egyptian political life.