Cairo University has decided to ban on Tuesday its academic staff from wearing face veils, also known as niqab, inside classrooms.
The controversial decision was made by Gaber Nassar, the chairman of the university, ahead of the start of the academic year next week.
“It is not allowed for the academic staff and their assistants in all faculties and institutions to teach in theoretical or practical classes or to attend laboratories or practical trainings while wearing the niqab,” the policy states.
Nassar says the decision was made for the sake of "general welfare" and is meant to "ease communication with students" and "advance the educational process".
The university’s decision was quickly criticised by several Islamic preachers.
Leading Salafi cleric and deputy head of the Dawa Salafiya group Yasser Borhami said that the decision is "against the constitution and law, and is considered discriminatory against a certain faction for its religious beliefs".
Following the criticism, Nassar said in a phone interview with Ten TV channel that the decision would be restricted to certain subjects, particularly ones that require the articulation of certain sounds, such as like language courses.
He added that the decision will not be applied to subjects that do not require "student-staff" communication.
According to Nassar, the number of teaching staff members wearing the full face veil is only 10 out of about 22,000 members teaching in 24 faculties.
Nassar said the university received reports from some of the faculties’ deans regarding difficulty in communication between the students and teachers wearing the niqab, particularly in language courses.
He also said that the ban aims to enhance the quality of communication and, consequently, education.
Nassar clarified that for teaching staff the ban is restricted to classrooms at the times of lectures, clarifying that members of the teaching staff are still allowed to wear their niqab on campus.
Dawa Salafiya spokesman Abdel-Moneim El-Shahat said the decision does not conflict with Islamic Sharia or the constitution as long as it is "necessary for the public interest".
Hany El-Husseiny, a Cairo University professor and a member of the March 9 Movement for the Independence of Universities, told Ahram Online that while he believes the niqab might act as a barrier to the educational process, decisions should not be made in the way used by Nassar.
“There has to be an open discussion about the whole issue before such a decision is made, especially when it is related to [religious] beliefs or might lead to unnecessary conflict,” El-Hussieny said.
Higher Education Minister Ashraf El-Sheihy said he intends to meet with Nassar in order to know the reasons behind the ban, Al-Ahram Arabic news website reported.
This is not the first time the university has been involved in controversy regarding the banning of the niqab. In November 2009, the university decided to ban students and teaching staff from wearing the niqab on campus or in the university’s dorms.
However, the ban was overturned by a Cairo court in January 2010 following a lawsuit filed by a female professor.