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Syrian Kurds ban niqab in schools in northeast Syria

The decision to ban the niqab at schools by the US-aligned Syrian group has angered some Arab constituents.
A Syrian teacher shows letters on a board at school in the village of al-Shamatiyah on the ourskirts of Deir ez-Zor, Syria, Feb. 7, 2018.

A recent decision by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria banning the niqab in schools in the areas under its control has raised public controversy.

The Autonomous Administration announced in an official circular issued Oct. 23 that all students attending schools in its areas of control shall adhere to each of the school’s uniforms and refrain from wearing the niqab on campus, while also banning the use of cellphones in classrooms.

The decision prompted protests in Deir ez-Zor province and nearby areas.

Media sources in northeast Syria who spoke to Al-Monitor said that many parts of Deir ez-Zor, which is under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), witnessed large demonstrations against both the corruption and the decision of the Autonomous Administration to ban the niqab in schools.

According to the sources, 10 demonstrations were held in Deir ez-Zor and two in the countryside of Hasakah. The SDF arrested eight protesters in the town of Muhaimidah in Deir ez-Zor province, which is witnessing growing public anger against the policies and practices of the Autonomous Administration and the SDF forces, the sources said. 

Ibrahim al-Hussein, a journalist based in Deir Ez-Zor, told Al-Monitor, “This decision [to ban the niqab in schools] is provocative to the local residents, who are predominantly religious people from conservative Islamic and tribal environments. According to them, this decision goes against their Islamic and Arab customs. They also believe that the decision was issued after they objected to the Autonomous Administration’s school curricula, which glorifies the figures of Kurdish parties while ignoring historical Arab figures, all the while perpetuating racism against Arabs.”

Masoud Saleh, an official in the education department in the Autonomous Administration, told Al-Monitor, “This decision was issued based on security concerns and does not go against the customs of the local society or Islamic law. Any suicide bomber affiliated with the Islamic State [IS] can wear the niqab and then carry out a suicide operation. We are not against the students’ and teachers’ dress choices. But IS could easily exploit school meetings to carry out suicide operations.”

He noted, “The Autonomous Administration respects all components in the area — most of whom are Arab, Muslim and religious — and we are not against the rituals of the Islamic religion or the customs of the clans. The decision bans the use of phones in classrooms, prevents all sorts of violence in schools and obliges students to respect the school uniform.”

Jaber al-Khalaf, a teacher in the SDF areas, told Al-Monitor, “This decision to ban the niqab contradicts the freedom of expression that people should enjoy when choosing their clothing. Many parents will prevent their daughters from going to school [because of the ban], and many teachers who wear the niqab will have no choice but to submit their resignations in protest against this decision.”

He said, “In addition, IS will exploit the ban on the niqab to mobilize the residents against the SDF. This helps IS portray the group [SDF] as one that opposes the Islamic religion and spreads infidelity. This goes in favor of IS' propaganda, whereby Kurdish forces are ‘atheists’ fighting Islam and Muslims, as they discriminate against Arabs and target their customs and the traditions of clans. [The decision] is the biggest gift to IS, which already considers everyone who studies in the schools of the Autonomous Administration as an infidel, but it will continue to spread its propaganda among the people.”

Khalaf concluded, “The educational process of the Autonomous Administration needs reform at the level of its curricula, teaching methods and teachers’ wages, which are very low. Many teachers have either left their jobs to emigrate to Europe or left the teaching profession altogether.”

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