Syria Bans the Niqab in Schools

Can banning the Niqab really work?

There is something ironic in Syria banning the niqab, or full head cover. When I first arrived in Damascus in 1981 to go to the University of Damascus and live in wahda al-uwla in the University City, the hijab, or scarf used by women to cover their hair, was banned. Many women defied the ban and wore it on campus anyway, but it was perhaps only 30% of all women. Today the percent of students that wear it is much higher, perhaps 70%. I am only guessing as it has been two years since I was on campus. In the 1960s, the headscarf was even rarer than it had become in the 1980s. In 1979, Rifaat al-Assad’s troops, saraya al-difaa,  had stopped cars in downtown Damascus and forced women wearing the hijab to remove it, causing an public uproar and much resentment.

The spread of Islamic clothing and outward expressions of piety has been steady and uninterrupted over the last four decades. It is not clear how the government can stop or reverse this trend. It is not restricted to Syria of course, but a phenomenon common to much of the Islamic world.

Many theories have been offered for why Islamic clothing has spread. Some of these theories are:  it is due to the failure of secularism and materialist ideologies, such as communism and socialism; a protest against corrupt and authoritarian rule; in Syria, it has been argued that it is a “Sunni” protest against the dominance of Alawis, who are viewed to be lax Muslims (Alawi women do not wear the headscarf as a rule). I have heard other explanations, as well: fashion, western clothing is too expensive, the growth in women’s literacy has led to greater piety and familiarity with religion.

I would be interested in hearing the explanations of SC readers.

School ban on all-covering veil raises nary a peep among activists in the Middle East
2010-07-15 – LA Times

Who knew right-wing Western politicians and the Syrian government had something in common?

The niqab, a face-covering veil worn by some Muslim women that has been maligned by many in Europe and the United States as a symbol of oppression and religious extremism, has been quietly outlawed in public schools by Syrian authorities in an effort to protect the nation’s nominal secularism.

Syria has a long and fraught history with Islamic opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. But despite possibly forcing 1,200 women out of their jobs, no one is headed to the streets or has even launched a Facebook campaign yet. ….

Bassam Kadi, director of the Syrian Women Observatory, who explained his reasons for declining to take up the cause of the niqab after several of the affected women approached his organization for help.

“The niqab is not a Syrian tradition,” Kadi told the National. “It’s an imported symbol of religious extremism and contradicts the moderate Islam we know here. If [a woman] wears niqab, she is forcing an attitude on society. She is making a statement. That is not acceptable in a school.”

Although no formal announcement was made, local media began reporting the ban in June after women who wore the niqab began coming forward and complaining that they had been fired or reassigned to government offices where they would not come into contact with students.

“Education in Syrian schools follows an objective, secular methodology and this is undermined by wearing the face veil,” Education Minister Ali Saad reportedly said during a teachers’ syndicate meeting last month…..

Sweeping support to ban full Islamic veil in Western Europe as France votes on Burka ban, survey shows

….According to a survey conducted by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center in April and May this year, support for banning the burka is especially high in France, where a whopping 82% are in favor of outlawing it in public places such as schools, hospitals and government offices, while just 17% are opposed to such measures.

But the study also indicates that the garment, which has been the subject of much heated debate and controversy in Europe, is becoming increasingly unpopular in Germany, Britain, and Spain, where 71%, 62% and 59%, respectively, of those surveyed endorsed burka bans similar to the proposed French law in their own countries.

Americans, on the other hand, remain strongly opposed to such a law. Only 28% of those surveyed in the U.S. were in support of a burka ban while 65% disapproved. ….In Paris, one communist lawmaker reportedly compared the cloak to “walking coffins” while another from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party stressed that women who wear the burka must be liberated — even if it’s against their will….

Off the Wall writes:

One of our most miserable failures, as secular Arabs, was not to focus on a large marginalized segment of our society in the deep rural areas. So long as our cities looked more like western cities, with a tolerable amount of head-scarves, and so long as the rural only showed up in the commercial sector of our cities, or during their visits to city doctors, we thought that progress was happening as we had no idea, or we did not want to realize the extent of our failures in bringing true development, education, modernization, and progress into these rural areas. We may have brought electricity, built a few schools, facilitated rapid and excessive and unsustainable exploitation of land and water resources, but true enlightenment, i guess, we did not bring. The story is the same in most Arab “secular” republics.

With this failure, and as a significant segment of rural Arabs left their forgotten villages and came to the cities in search of better economic life, and in many cases, were even forced to do so through the extreme centralization prevalent in our societies, the cities started to reflect more of the true societal differences, and the more conservative leaning of the country, than they did when they only held about 15% of our “more affluent” westernized population. No secular Arab thinker dares to bring this issue, for it highlights our 70 year failure in affecting real, non-cosmetic progress. Tribal mentality remained the same, and it has by now spread into the cities where the narrow circles of old-urbanites , that used to be able to pretend that they represent the entire society, can no longer do so. Hence their nostalgia to the old days.

A population that remained more susceptible to wahabi ideas now constitutes a significant segment of Arab City dwellers, especially in Megacities, where traditionally, more cosmopolitan, enlightened strands of Islam was previously practiced. Ignoring the migrants after they migrated to the cities and leaving them to fend for themselves without real help exacerbated the problem and made more of the city now even more susceptible to Wahabi ideas. The same story can be told in countless Arab countries. It is not the Wahabi idea that is gaining, it is our failure to bring a large segment of our society into a level of development that can confront these ideas is the cause of what we now see.

Note: Mr. N3eyseh should try to explain the fact that the little desert principalities he so harshly criticizes have three (Qatar, Oman, and UAE) among the 32 least corrupt countries on earth, with two other monarchies (Jordan and Morocco) steadily moving up into the rank of 40s while the entirety of Arab “secular” republics are among the worst in corruption perception index with few of them going worst by the year. We failed, and we should face up. We need to re-invent Arab secularism and progressive thought to be more inclusive, less elitist, and truly committed to the human development of the Arab world.

Veiled Arguments
By RONALD P. SOKOL, July 14, 2010, International Herald Tribune

Two years ago, France’s highest court denied citizenship to a Muslim woman on the grounds that she had not assimilated into French society. I agreed to defend her before the European Court of Human Rights. I could have emphasized religious freedom; I raised the argument, but there was an easier way to show that the court had gone astray.

French law gives two tests of assimilation: knowledge of the language and absence of a criminal record. My client spoke fluent French and had no criminal record. But reports of interviews by social workers said that she had showed up wearing a niqab. On that basis, the court concluded that she practiced a form of religion incompatible with equal rights of men and women.

I argued that to allow an official to judge a failure to assimilate without providing criteria was to invite arbitrary decisions. The Human Rights Convention prohibits governments from acting arbitrarily. The case is currently pending before the European Court. ….

On Tuesday, the National Assembly passed the draft law by a vote of 335 to 1. It declares that “no one can, in the public space, wear clothing intended to hide the face.” The Senate is expected to pass the bill in September, when it will become law.

While the extreme marginality of the practice renders discussion somewhat ridiculous, the government’s insistence that the issue is vital makes it incumbent to show that its reasons do not resist analysis. Jean-François Copé, the majority leader in the French National Assembly and a small town mayor, argued in an opinion article on these pages (May 6) that “face covering poses a serious safety problem” and that “visibility of the face in the public sphere” is a fundamental principle.

The first argument is easily disposed of. There exists no evidence that women wearing the veil pose a security problem. Copé provides no evidence. The government’s own reports fail to show a public safety issue. In the total absence of any evidence, passing a law to provide protection where no protection is needed is either an exercise in absurdity or conceals a different agenda.

Copé’s second reason is more interesting. He asks, “How can you establish a relationship with a person who, by hiding a smile or a glance … refuses to exist in the eyes of others?” For the majority leader, “the niqab and burqa represent a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others.” In this he may be correct. But if a woman has a duty to show her face in public it must be because someone else has the right to see her face. That is the pretended “right” that Copé asserts.

I know of no such right. Copé will not find it in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, nor in the European Convention of Human Rights. When walking down the Champs Elysées, I have no right to see the face of passersby. Nor do I want such a right. While Copé may want a passer-by to give him a glance or a smile, he has no right to demand it.

Yes, the veil may be antisocial, but, fortunately, in a democratic, pluralistic society there is no legal duty to be social…..

Ronald P. Sokol is a lawyer in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Comments (60)

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51. Abu Omar said:

It makes perfect sense, Universities in Syria are not really places of study alone.If they were places of study then it would not matter whether clothes worn by the students were revealing or not.It’s not like the veil is a barrier to speaking to your “ustaaz” most of the time the lecturers don’t even turn up anyway! The Universities in Syria have always been about liberating and secularising young people precisely because they provide the opportunity for them to mix freely. Hafez al assad was a genius he used the Universities to liberate society from the clutches of religion , he achieved through peaceful means what Rifaat tried to by force ( remember when he sent in his companies to remove the “hijab”)

If women cannot show their faces and bodies how else could they form a relationship with a man? that is one of the purposes of University in Syria is … is it not?
Let’s face it university in syria is an opportunity for women and men from villages and remote areas in syria to study and to meet members of the opposite sex without being constrained by customs , traditions and religion .

Now those women who wore the niqab can freely show their faces to the opposite sex and form free loving relationships.Well done ! this is progress, syria is progressing BRAVO!!!!!

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July 19th, 2010, 2:39 pm


52. Husam said:

Stranger in Syria:

While I can attest that Syria is far from the perfect society and that Hijab/Niqab is hugely debated issue, I find it hard to believe that you “truly are well travelled in Syria”. It seems that you are locked to a certain group of people or your analysis is unfounded for the following reasons:

1) You said: “HERE MEN LIKE TO GO OUT WITH BITCHES (SEE THE NUMBERS OF NIGHTCLUBS) BUT THEY WANT TO MARRY A VIRGIN, AN HONORABLE WOMEN THAT ONLY HER MOTHER LIPS KISSED.” I disagree with you 110%. While it is true that some men do go astray, play around, as in many societies, but to say that this is the norm in Syria is far from the truth. The “MEN” you are referring to are fooling around with “WOMEN” (not men). So, this is not reserved just to “MEN”. If you are referring to clubs that have Russian Dancers, this is .00000000001 percent of Syrian Men because people know who’s who in Damascus and would not want to tarnish their image or the image of their family if seen in such a place. These places are visited by Saudis, Expats or Non-Damascenes.

2) You say you are a convert, but bashing women and mocking them with descriptions such as yours is not comical. Even Vanessa @50 finds it non-amusing.

3) You said: “A FULL VEILED WOMAN IN THE SOCIETY MEANS EASIER TO GET MARRIED. NOBODY SOW HER, SHE IS “PURE”. This is absurd. I know dozens of women, who actually postponed the wearing of the Hijab/Niqab because they were afraid that this limited their chances of finding a Husband. I think you are truly a “stranger in Syria” because your comments don’t reflect Syrian society as a whole.

4) What an awkward way to finish your comment about Syrian Women.

p.s. Kindly use lower case when writing, full upper case is very HARD ON EYES.

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July 19th, 2010, 5:57 pm


53. ‘Can banning the Niqab really work?’ asks Syria Comment | InterFaith21 said:

[…] links to varied views at his Syria Comment blog, does a really nice job covering the spectrum of Muslim and other opinion on the banning […]

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July 19th, 2010, 6:38 pm


54. Sarah said:

The Burqa and Nijab is a security issue. Due to the fact that terrorists disguised in burqas are blowing men, women and children up in the name of their god, this has come to the forefront. It is the extremists own fault that the women are being asked not to wear this. It really isn’t a political or religious issue, it is a national even global security issue. In order for society to be safe during times of terrorism, war and other criminal actions that are taken while hiding behind a burga, nijab or mask, then restrictions must apply.

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July 19th, 2010, 9:40 pm


55. Ghat Al Bird said:

The best security is the one where one side uses drones to kill as many people as possible without having any one on their side of the fence getting hurt.

Another major and most important aspect of security is making sure that your people have the most up to date nuclear weapons and more of them than any one in your neck of the woods.

The present practices of containing a million or more human beings in close quarters as an example in Gaza, Guantanamo and prisons in general is a favored security practice of the only two democracies and allies in the world.

And lastly a significant and scantilly thought, up till now. security consideration to combat terrorism is for the only two democracies and allies in the world to order that all females in the world be commanded to wear as little clothing as possible in order not to freak out the women/men that live in the only two democracies and eternal allies in the world.

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July 20th, 2010, 9:34 am


56. Husam said:

Ghat Al Bird:

Very true, but what about the best security measures that the Arab decision makers take, who sit idle and do nothing for their own security (and family, and throne)???

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July 21st, 2010, 11:34 am


57. Husam said:


That is amazingly skewed remark. Name one country other than Occupied Territories where this has happened? Iraq, Afghanistan, and Occupied Territories are occupied by foreign invaders and war is going on. Don’t the foreign military use camouflage and every possible dirty trick?

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July 21st, 2010, 11:43 am


58. Ghat Al Bird said:


While what comes next may be considered an insult or an opinionated statement or view trust thamost eaders will consider it a sympathetically opinionated one.

Given the past histories as well as the character of a person of Arab heritage the term “Arabs” is non representative of realities.

While millions of people speak Arabic and are of “Arab” heritage there is realistically due to a variety of historical acts little that ties them all into one common entity. Which when considered in an impartial/objective manner bespeaks the independent characteristics of each and all Arabs.

Much like the Irish people the Arabs tend to be more emotional than cold blooded in dealing with issues that impact them all.

Security for the Arabs has to be determined in a cool and unemotional manner by each separate Arab state, all within the framework that by pursuing an independent sense of security they do not endanger another Arab state’s security.

The above is my attempt at providing one point of view based on limited knowledge. In short as an example no one in Jordan can determine the scope and extent of security in Syria, or Libya.

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July 21st, 2010, 4:25 pm


59. Maya said:

I just feel frustrated at the time and energy wasted on debates that should not exist in the first place. Why do some people find it hard to understand that the rest of us find it unfair to live among people with masks? Why should anyone have the privilage of being un-identified? Religion or no religion I can’t see why I should be forced to share public space with a human (I’m not going to assume it’s a woman) without a face? The human face, beautiful, ugly or even deformed is our way to communicate on a human level.

Why bring first century culture to the 21st century? It’s sad how women sometimes enjoy being humiliated and put down.

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July 22nd, 2010, 9:21 am


60. A Decade in Power, part 3: In Grip of Poverty and Religion. Social trends under Bashar al-Assad : The Damascus Bureau said:

[…] the government banned female students from attending public and private universities wearing the Niqab (a veil covering the face) and dismissed 1200 school teachers for wearing the […]

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July 26th, 2010, 6:58 am


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