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Wednesday, July 21, 2010 - 12:33pm

In Syria, Ban On Veil Raises Few Eyebrows

It's a small piece of cloth that has become a political symbol.

As a loud and controversial debate continues over wearing the Muslim face veil in Europe, Syria quietly imposed curbs Sunday on the niqab, the veil that exposes only the eyes.

The secular-minded Syrian government has rejected extreme religious dress in the classroom, the first Arab government to weigh in so heavily on the face veil.

While many Syrian Muslim women wear a head scarf, the Syrian government sees the face veil as a growing sign of radical Islam. The latest crackdown is in the education system. However, over the past year dozens of Islamic institutes have also been shuttered.

Most Syrians welcomed the government's decree and those who didn't kept quiet about it.

In the Rawda cafe, an institution here, where backgammon games go long into the night, English student Alaa Badran believes most Syrians don't accept extreme religious expression.

"OK, I think when they wear this niqab, they are exaggerating in covering their faces," Badran says.

Her backgammon partner, Riham Dakakny says the veil is bad for women, and for Syria's image as a secular state.

"Sometimes men force their women to put this [on]. I don't know why. There isn't anything in our holy Quran or in our religion to tell them to do this," Dakakny says.

A few tables away, 20-year-old Rolan Alakel, sat bareheaded and checking her Facebook account while smoking sheesha, a traditional water pipe. She says she hadn't heard about the government ban.

"Here? They did? Seriously?" she says, her face brightening. "Yeah. Im with them. I don't like it."

Syrian Media Silent On The Issue

So far, Syria's official media has said nothing about the ban on face veils in schools. But word spread when hundreds of teachers were removed from classrooms and reassigned to other jobs.

Some of the teachers complained to an organization that specializes in women's rights, the Syrian Women Observatory. But they didn't get much support from its director, Bassam Kadi.

"The important thing: niqab is a very big kind of violence against women. The women underneath the niqab are a victim," he says.

The face veil has become more prevalent across the region, a sign, some say, of a wave of anger over the region's violence, political failures and autocratic regimes.

The Syrian government has been wary of Islamist uprisings since the 1980s. A rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood brought the country to the brink of civil war.

The face veil ban puts Syria in line with European parliaments, where attitudes have also hardened against this symbolic piece of cloth. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]

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