The face veil stirs a row in Egypt's hospitals

( dpa ) - Thousands of Egyptian nurses, who cover their bodies from head to toe while on duty, will be asked to uncover their faces and show their hands under a new rule soon to be enforced in Egypt's hospitals.

Under the rule - to be formally announced in March - a new uniform for nurses will be introduced and with it a ban on the face veil, known as "niqab," for ultra-religious medics.

Out of 90,000 nurses working in state-owned hospitals, many of whom wear head scarves, some 9,630 medics wear the face veil, according to figures of the Egyptian Ministry of Health.

The semi-secular government, threatened by growing religious puritanism, is all too keen to enforce the rule.

"We will not allow nurses wearing the face veil to break the rule," Health Undersecretary Hoda Zaki stressed.

"In cases where the rule is breached, penalties will be applied, ranging from a notice to salary deduction," the official said.

However, dismissal from work for not wearing the uniform was out of the question, she said.

Traditionally, Egyptian women used to cover their faces with white veils and their bodies with a variant of the Iranian-style shador until the early 20th century when a wave of emancipation swept the country and parts of the Middle East.

From then on, more and more women have appeared in public with bare faces clad in Western-style garments.

Less than a century later, the face veil and the shador are making a comeback with a wave of religious identification and observance. But those wearing them are still in the minority.

Over 90 per cent of Egyptian women from across the class divide observe the Islamic dress code in various forms and colours.

Some cover their hair with colourful scarves but are happy to wear Western-style outfits, not shying away even from wearing tights jeans and slit skirts.

Others take the Islamic dress code more seriously. They wear long, wide robes and head covers in plain dark colours reaching down to the thighs that ensure body curves are hidden.

These women have never experienced the kind of official harassment religious women face in Turkey - a Muslim country with a stronger secular tradition and stricter anti-veil policies.

However, the face veil is causing unease in Egypt for its perceived incompatibility with modern life.

"The niqab is seen as an obstacle to communication between nurses and patients. Gloves help spread infections," Zaki said.

Many ultra-religious women who wear the niqab also wear gloves.

Islamist members of parliament (MPs) leading the campaign against the niqab ban fear it might extend to other areas.

"There is nothing wrong with wearing the niqab in hospitals. Even doctors wear face masks in the operation room," MP Hamdi Hasan said.

"Nurses wear gloves while on duty, anyway. It is a natural thing," he said.

The Egyptian Doctors' Association, dominated by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group, has already warned the Minister of Health against potential cases of "unfair dismissal" of non-compliant nurses.

The government wants to distract people with insignificant issues such as the face veil, said Esam al-Iryan, a senior member of the Doctors' Association and the Muslim Brotherhood.

If nurses are forced to take off the face veil, they will take legal action and the court will rule in their favour, al-Iryan said.

He was banking hopes on a legal precedent in which the Ministry of Education's attempt to impose a similar ban on female teachers was overruled by court.

But other doctors are opposed to the face veil.

"Women who wear the face veil have no right to jobs requiring communication with people, not just in medical professions. I have the right to see the face of whoever I am dealing with," said Mohammed Abul-Ghar, a professor at Cairo University medical college.

There is a consensus among Islamic theologians that the face veil is not a religious duty, which means it should be taken off if it conflicts with work requirements, the academic said.

The Minister of Health, Hatim al-Gabali, himself a doctor, has joined the campaign against the face veil saying it prevents nurses from tending to the needs of patients.

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