CAIRO: An Islamist lawmaker called on Wednesday for the head of the most prestigious center of religious learning in the Sunni Muslim world to resign after he told a schoolgirl to remove the veil covering her face.
The demand to step down came as about two dozen students, wearing the face veil, known as a niqab, protested outside the state-run Cairo University, which has banned the veils from its residence hall.
Mohamed Tantawi, head of Al-Azhar University, told a student to remove her niqab when he spotted her during a tour of an Al-Azhar affiliated school, the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported this week.
He also said he intended to ban the niqab at Al-Azhar and made an unflattering remark about the girl s appearance when she took off the veil, the newspaper said.
And you look like this; what would you do of you were a bit pretty, he reportedly asked, adding I know more about religion than your parents.
Al-Azhar spokesman Ahmed Tawfiq confirmed Tantawi had asked the girl to remove the niqab, but said he spoke to her in a kindly way.
He said Tantawi, who insists the niqab is not an Islamic practice, wanted to ban the niqab from Al-Azhar classrooms on religious grounds.
The imam always bases his decision on religious grounds, said Tawfiq.
Hamdi Hassan, an MP with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt s largest opposition group, said Tantawi cannot stay in his post; he hurts Al-Azhar every time he says something.
I believe the niqab is not an obligation, but it is a benefit, he added. Why ban it from Al-Azhar? It s a religious institution, not a belly dancing academy.
Meanwhile, about two dozen students wearing the niqab, which covers all but the eyes, gathered outside the gates of Cairo University s residence to protest at the decision, their luggage piled on a nearby pavement.
I have exams in two weeks. I haven t found a house and I can t study, said one student who gave her name as Fatin. What happened to individual freedom? Cosmetics are freedom, but not the niqab?
In Kuwait, hardline Islamist MP Mohammad Hayef called Tantawi s action shameless and said the cleric issues bizarre and abnormal fatwas (religious edicts).
Most Muslim women in Egypt wear the hijab, which covers the hair, but the niqab is becoming more popular on the streets of Cairo.
The government has shown concern over the trend. The religious endowments ministry issued booklets against the practice, saying the niqab is not Islamic, and the health ministry wants to ban it among doctors and nurses.
In the Middle East, the niqab is associated with Salafism, an ultra-conservative school of thought practiced mostly in Saudi Arabia.
Most Salafis shun politics, but the creed has influenced Islamist militants such as Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden.
Al-Azhar has long enjoyed a reputation as Sunni Islam s eminent source of learning and edicts.
Salafis, who actively promote their creed, sometimes funded by wealthy patrons in Saudi Arabia, are largely opposed to Al-Azhar s theological teachings.