Women wearing the niqab will no longer be allowed to attend universities, according to a Syrian directive. The move is part of efforts by Damascus to stem Islamic extremism in the country.
A growing number of Syrian women are donning the niqab
Media reports said the directive came from the country's Minister of Higher Education Ghaith Barakat. The full-face veil - or niqab - worn by some Muslim women was "inconsistent with the values and ethics of academic traditions," Barakat said according to the state-run news agency Sana. In addition, women had to be "protected" from radical customs.
A government official in Damascus told The Associated Press on Monday that the authorities had "given directives to all universities to ban niqab-wearing women from registering." The order is valid for both students and teaching staff at all public and private universities.
However, the ban does not apply to women wearing the hijab, or headscarf, which only covers the hair.
Threat of extremism
Similar moves in Europe, for example in France and Belgium, have sparked accusations of discrimination against Muslims. But this directive is supposed to protect Syria's secular identity.
The country has been battling extremists for years, culminating in a regional uprising in the 1980s that was brutally struck down. In an interview with US talk show host Charlie Rose earlier this year, President Bashar Al-Assad said he was intent on actively fighting Islamic extremism in the Middle East.
"The biggest challenge is how we can keep our society as secular as it is today," he said. "It's not about being passive and saying: I'm going to protect myself. How can you be active and expand what you have to the others?"
Though the niqab is not widespread in Syria, it has become more common recently. This growing popularity has not gone unnoticed by the secular regime under Al-Assad.
"You always have extremists, in everything: in politics, in religion, in Christianity, in Islam, in Judaism," Al-Assad said. "But it's about how much can they influence the society? As long as we have open-minded people, you don't worry about them. They are going to be isolated."
Syria's First Lady Asma Al-Assad does not follow Islamic dress customs
For Syria's president, the growing influence of religious hardliners is worrisome, said Faisal al Yafai, a journalist currently working on a study of feminism across the Arab and Islamic worlds.
"The rise of religion among the population has shaken the leadership: with overt displays of faith on the rise and a rare terrorist attack in Damascus two years ago attributed to Islamists, the government appears to be moving against hard-line religious ideas," said al Yafai in a commentary for The Guardian earlier this week.
Just last month, hundreds of primary school teachers wearing the niqab at government-run schools were transferred to administrative jobs. According to al Yafai, the government was sending a strong signal.
"The niqab ban in public schools is a fairly blunt instrument but, on such a small scale, it may be intended to send a message," al Yafai said.
An outright law banning the niqab in universities and schools will not be introduced, however. The government apparently fears antagonizing conservative powers in the country.
Despite Syria's secular leadership, the country is run with an authoritative hand. The media are largely controlled by Al-Assad's Baath party. Human rights activists may no longer disappear without a trace - as was common practice under the current leader's father Hafez Al-Assad - but still face serious penalties. The country has intensified a campaign of arrests of political opponents over the last two years.
Earlier this month, a military court gave 79-year-old lawyer Haytham al-Maleh a three-year jail term on charges of "publishing false information." He was arrested last year after renewing calls to dismantle the 1963 emergency law that bans all opposition to the Baath party.
Western nations have demanded al-Maleh's immediate release. Germany's human rights commissioner Markus Loening said he was "shocked" by the sentencing.
"Al-Maleh is considered a leader of the Syrian human rights movement who has committed himself for decades at great personal risk for the protection of human rights in his country," Loening said.
The Syrian government has not reacted to these demands.
Author: Jens Wiening with AP/dpa (sac)
Editor: Michael Knigge