A letter from the president of the American University in Cairo (AUC) on Sunday affirmed news that the university is moving toward banning women wearing the niqab (face veil) from campuses and university transport, although the university promised to “accommodate” current students.
The decision was met with anger from many students, who say it is discriminatory and in violation of their personal rights.
Following the letter from the president, privately owned Egyptian newspapers Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Shorouk intimated that the decision might be reversed, but the university has not informed students of any changes to the president’s announcement or university policy.
AUC amended its “Campus Access Policy” on November 11, stating on the university’s official website that, ”All persons seeking access to the AUC campus or AUC-provided transportation, and the faces of all those present on the campus or AUC provided transportation, must be visible at all times.”
The policy change initially went unnoticed, until one student wrote on a student-led Facebook group that she was told by a security guard that she wouldn’t be allowed on campus wearing the niqab starting December 21.
The student, who asked to remain anonymous, told Mada Masr that the presence of female security guards at the gates deals with the university’s concern regarding the identity of students entering campuses. The letter from the president’s office was a shock, she added, as it seems as though the decision had already been made, despite the dean of students reassuring students that it would be discussed.
The president’s letter stated the policy clearly:
“In order to ensure a safe and secure environment for all members of our community and visitors alike, we determined that the identity of all persons on campus and AUC-operated transportation must be immediately apparent. Acceptance of this and all published AUC policies is a requirement for admission to AUC.”
On Monday night, following news that the university had allegedly gone back on its decision to ban the niqab, Rehab Saad, AUC’s director of media relations, didn’t have a conclusive answer to Mada Masr’s question about whether or not the decision would be enforced, saying it was still being discussed.
“For safety and security reasons, the university determined that the identity of those who seek entrance to the campus should be revealed. In addition to accommodating current students, the university will be engaged in discussions about this important access policy for the safety of the campus.”
Senior political science student Aseel Osman, who has exchanged emails on the matter with the dean of students, told Mada Masr on Tuesday that the administration has not informed students of any policy changes. Osman collected 500 signatures from students rejecting the policy changes after he was told by a faculty member that the administration had asked professors to send the names of students wearing the niqab in their classes.
But “accommodating current students” is not enough, Osman adds. “The university is trying to make this a personal issue by sitting down with affected students and finding solutions, and not responding to the state of collective anger. The issue is not only about the banning of the niqab and infringement on personal rights, it’s also about the university’s pattern of making unilateral decisions and forcing us to accept them.”
Dozens of students protested the decision at AUC on Tuesday, some of them covering their faces in solidarity.
As the university appears set to press ahead with the new policy, it seems media pieces suggesting the decision might be reversed were a misinterpretation of the president’s assertions that currently-enrolled students wearing the niqab would be accomodated.
“AUC always strives to support each of our students throughout his or her journey to graduation. Several currently enrolled students are impacted by this policy. The provost and dean of students are meeting with each of them to arrange reasonable accommodations that will permit them to complete their courses of study at AUC,” the president’s letter read.
But the same letter implied that no niqab-wearing women would be admitted to AUC in the future.
“We are not looking for solutions just to help ourselves and to sacrifice the women who will be refused admission to the university in the future, we want the policy to change. We put up with being turned away from restaurants and hotels, they’re not things we can’t live without, but this is education, it’s not a luxury,” one student, who wears the niqab, said.
This is not the first time that AUC has been at the center of a niqab-related controversy. In 2001, an administrative court ruled in favor of PhD candidate Noha al-Zeiny, who was prohibited from entering the AUC library wearing the niqab. The Supreme Administrative Court upheld the ruling in 2007, stating, “The absolute banning of the niqab is not allowed. It is permissible to require a niqab-wearing woman to show her face when necessary.” But this court ruling relates to an individual case, not university policy, Saad says.
Lawyer Hoda Nasrallah, who was involved in Zeiny’s case, explains that institutions finding ways to get around similar judicial verdicts is not uncommon. “They say that the verdict only applies to the individual case, and that those affected in the future will also have to go through the courts. The institution adheres to the verdict on a case-by-case basis and then issues the same decision again with no consequences.”