Supreme Administrative Court Outlaws Complete Ban on Niqab

Press Release

9 June 2007

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) welcomed the legal precedent established today by the Supreme Administrative Court's ruling that a complete ban on the right of a Muslim woman to don the niqab, a veil covering the whole face except for the eyes, violates the constitutional protection of the rights to personal liberty and non-discrimination.

Today's ruling was issued by the Principle Unification Chamber of the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) on appeal no. 3219/49 in favor of a niqab-wearing English literature professor at Al-Azhar Univeristy who was stripped of her library privileges at the American University in Cairo (AUC) in 2001 following an AUC Board decision to ban the niqab in all classrooms, libraries and laboratories.

"Women should be free to choose their dress code without facing discrimination based on their choice," said Hossam Bahgat, Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which was part of the professor's legal team. " Today's ruling supports women's right to privacy and non-discrimination by setting strict legal conditions for any interference with a woman's freedom to choose how to dress."

While affirming that a complete ban on niqab could never be justified, the decision allowed for limited restrictions on women's right to choose their dress code, including the right of a public institution to ask a woman to reveal her face for identification by a security guard. According to the Court reasoning, any such restrictions must meet a test of necessity and proportionality; i.e. they must be necessary to achieve a legitimate public interest and limited to the extent required for achieving that interest.

The First District of the SAC had referred the case to the Principle Unification Chamber, a special panel comprising its longest serving 11 judges headed by the SAC President, in January 2006 with a view to settling the conflict between a 1999 SAC decision upholding the right of Al-Mansura University to ban the niqab on campus, and nine earlier decisions issued since 1989 by the same court affirming women's right to don the niqab. Last December, lawyers from the EIPR's Right to Privacy Program submitted to the Chamber a legal brief addressing the constitutional and legal protection of women's rights to privacy, non-discrimination, freedom to display religious beliefs and freedom to express their opinion through their dress code.