Egypt's top Islamic cleric is planning to ban students wearing the face veil from entering the schools of al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's premier institute of learning, according to an independent daily Monday.
A security official also told The Associated Press that police have standing verbal orders to bar girls covered from head to toe from entering al-Azhar's institutions, including middle and high schools, as well as the dormitories of several universities in Cairo.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to speak to the press, said the ban was for security reasons.
The moves appear to be part of a government campaign cracking down on increasingly overt manifestations of ultraconservative Islam in Egypt.
While a vast majority of Egyptian women wear the headscarf, only a few wear the niqab, which covers the face and is common in neighboring Saudi Arabia which practices the more conservative form of Wahhabi Islam. The trend seems to gaining ground in the Arab world's most populous country.
There is no uniform religious opinion across the Muslim world about whether a head scarf — much less a face veil — is required.
The majority of Islamic scholars say the face veil is not required but is merely a custom that dates back to tribal, nomadic societies living in the Arabian desert before Islam began.
Muslim scholars have questioned plans by the head of Egypt's most famous university to ban female students from veiling their faces on its premises and affiliated educational establishments.
Shaikh Ali Abu al-Hasan, the former head of the Fatwa Council at the Islamic Studies Institute (ISI) in Cairo, said although it was not required by Islam for women to cover their faces, Al-Azhar University should allow women to chose what they want to wear.
"No official has the right to order a young lady to remove a form of dress that was sanctioned by none other than Umar ibn al-Khattab, except for the purposes of identification for security reasons," he said.
"The niqab [face veil] is not in contravention of the sharia or Egyptian law."
Shaikh Safwat Hijazi, a scholar and preacher, said he would personally sue anyone who prevented his daughter or wife wearing full niqab from going about her daily life, including entering government offices.