Khalil Hamra, File, Associated Press
CAIRO — 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.
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."
In the past weeks, riots have broken out at two churches in southern Egypt, prompted by Muslim crowds angered by church construction. One riot broke out, near the city of Aswan, even after church officials agreed to a demand by local ultraconservative Muslims, called Salafis, that a cross and bells be removed from the building.
The violence is particularly frustrating for Christians because soon after Mubarak's fall the new government promised to review and lift heavy Mubarak-era restrictions on building or renovating churches. The promise raised hopes among Christians that the government would establish a clear legal right to build, resolving an issue that in recent years has increasingly sparked riots. But the review never came, and Salafi clerics have increased their rhetoric against Christians, including accusing them of seeking to spread their faith with new churches.
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's father Sorial complained to officials, demanding his daughter be allowed to attend without a scarf.
"After the revolution, there are no administration and no officials to go to. The system is lax and there is no supervision from the ministry," he told AP. "If things were under control, extremists would not have a free hand to act as they wish."
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