On her first day to school, 15-year-old Christian student Ferial Habib was stopped at the doorstep of her new high school with clear instructions: either put on a headscarf or no school this year.The idea that wearing the hijab stops sexual harassment in Egypt has been thoroughly debunked - and some think the veil even attracts unwanted attention!
Habib refused. While most Muslim women in Egypt wear the headscarf, Christians do not, and the move by administrators to force a Christian student to don it was unprecedented. For the next two weeks, Habib reported to school in the southern Egyptian village of Sheik Fadl every day in her uniform, without the head covering, only to be turned back by teachers.
One day, Habib heard the school loudspeakers echoing her name and teachers with megaphones leading a number of students in chants of "We don't want Ferial here," the teenager told The Associated Press.
Habib's was allowed last week to attend without the scarf, and civil rights advocates say her case is a rare one. But it stokes the fears of Egypt's significant Christian minority that they will become the victims as Islamists grow more assertive after the Feb. 11 toppling of President Hosni Mubarak. It also illustrates how amid the country's political turmoil, with little sense of who is in charge and government control weakened, Islamic conservatives in low-level posts can step in and try to unilaterally enforce their own decisions.
Wagdi Halfa, one of Habib's lawyers, said the root problem is a lack of the rule of law.
"We don't want more laws but we want to activate the laws already in place," he said. "We are in a dark tunnel in terms of sectarian tension. Even if you have the majority who are moderate Muslims, a minority of extremists can make big impact on them and poison their minds."
Habib's experience was startling because in general, Egypt's Christians, who make up at least 10 percent of the population of 80 million, have enjoyed relative freedom in terms of dress and worship. The vast majority of Muslim women in Egypt put on the headscarf, known as the higab, either for religious or social reasons, but there's little expectation that Christians wear it.
The demand that all students wear the higab was a decision by administrators and teachers at the high school in Sheik Fadl, 110 miles (180 kilometers) south of Cairo in Minya province. They said the headscarf was part of the school uniform, necessary to protect girls from sexual harassment.
A top provincial Education Ministry official, Abdel-Gawad Abdullah, said in an interview with CTV, a private Egyptian Christian television network, that the ministry gives schools the right to decide on school uniforms, and that parents during screening and application can either accept or refuse.
"And if the father wants to move his daughter to another school, it is OK," he said. "All the girls, including the Christians, put on the head cover and they have no problem," he added.
Habib was finally allowed to attend last Tuesday.
"I am happy I did what I want and that no one can force something on me. But I am afraid of the students and the teachers," she told AP. "The teachers are not normal with me and I am sure they will give me low grades at the end of the year."
A new poll by Al Ahram says that 70% of Egyptians feel the greatest danger in Egypt is security chaos, while 17.5% feel the greatest danger is an Islamist takeover. Unfortunately, I don't know how many Egyptians in general (without ranking the issues) feel that an Islamist takeover is a concern.
One other point: when a wire service like AP releases a story, it gets picked up by newspaper and and other media that subscribe to AP's services. Popular stories can be picked up by hundreds or even thousands of media outlets, depending on how important the editors of the media outlet feel that this story is.
This story was republished on websites of only 13 media outlets, according to Google News.