By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
Veiled Gulf Arab women look at dresses at a Syrian fashion shop in Damascus August 12, 2003.
DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Reports that authorities had banned fully veiled Muslim women students from university campuses have caused a rare public debate in Syria.
Two Syrian websites reported that the Ministry of Higher Education last week prohibited the niqab, a veil that leaves only the eyes showing, at universities — although in practice it is rarely worn by students at most universities.
Higher Education Minister Ghiath Barakat declined to confirm the decision, telling an official gathering Tuesday that the government prefers â€œsociety to take the lead in fighting extremism.â€
Presidents of several universities publicly said they had not received instructions to ban the niqab. One administrator, however, said privately his university was ordered by a government division he did not name to turn away fully veiled applicants.
The issue is sensitive in Syria where the government has been controlled since 1963 by the Baath Party which was founded on secular nationalist principles.
But Islamisation in society has been rising. Western countries accuse the government of aiding Islamist militants infiltrating into Iraq, a charge Syria denies.
â€œToday they ban the niqab and tomorrow they will ban the hijab,â€ said one caller to a program on private station Virgin FM Wednesday. The hijab is the Islamic headscarf which leaves the face uncovered. It has become common in Syria.
â€œA decision to ban the niqab aims to ignite sectarian strife,â€ said another caller, who gave her name as Um Mohammad.
Last week Franceâ€™s lower house of parliament approved a bill under which Muslim women could be fined for wearing full-face veils. Three months ago Belgiumâ€™s lower house of parliament banned all clothing that covers or partially covers the face.
Egyptâ€™s al-Azhar university, one of Sunni Islamâ€™s most prominent seats of learning, banned the niqab among students and teachers last year but the decision was overturned by a Cairo court in January.
Bassam al-Aisami, a lawyer, said banning the niqab violated freedom of belief, which he said was guaranteed by Syriaâ€™s constitution.
Two pro-government figures on the radio show said there was no religious justification for the niqab and it had no place in the 21st century. â€œThe niqab has no basis in scripture,â€ said Mohammad al-Habash, an Islamist member of parliament.
Bassam al-Qadi, who heads a womenâ€™s rights group, said the government â€œshould have prepared the public relations ground betterâ€ before the decision, which he said had been taken.
Syrian universities are in their summer break and registration for the next semester begins in 1-2 weeks.
Salim Daboul, vice-president of the private Kalamoon University, said it had received no instructions not to let students wear the niqab and that only two or three students wear it on campus.
â€œI am with any move to ban it,â€ Daboul told Reuters. â€œBut the students enrolled currently should be allowed to finish their education and graduate.â€
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)