Egypt's three most prominent religious leaders have backed a government ban on the niqab, or full face veil, in dormitories and examinations, saying it had no basis in Islam.
In October, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the head of al-Azhar, a major seat of Islamic learning, issued a religious edict barring the niqab in Azhar-run all-girl schools and in dormitories.
The minister of higher education subsequently banned it in university examinations.
"Al Azhar is not against the niqab but against its misuse," the government-run al-Akhbar newspaper cited Tantawi on Tuesday as saying. He said it was a social habit that had no roots in sharia (Islamic law).
Earlier this week, Tantawi joined Mufti Ali Gomaa, Egypt's highest religious legal authority, and Hamdy Zakzouk, minister of religious endowments, in a forum on the niqab. Other religious leaders also attended.
Egypt's government has long been wary of Islamist thinking and in the 1990s crushed Islamists seeking to set up a religious state. It also is keen to quell opposition ahead of parliamentary elections next year and a later presidential vote.
'Checking her identity very easy task'
The forum was organized after a Cairo court ruled this month that no administrative body or other body could ban the niqab, media reports said.
Minister of Higher Education Hani Hilal said earlier this week he was concerned some people used the niqab to shield immodesty and crime, including girls who take school tests in place of colleagues.
Many remain unconvinced, however. Al-Said Abdel Maksoud Askar, a Muslim Brotherhood member of parliament, described Hilal's concerns as illegitimate excuses. "Checking her identity is a very easy task," he told Reuters.
"Any girl is free to wear the niqab as long as she understands that when asked to reveal her face ... she should do so accordingly," Sheikh Mahmoud Ashour, a prominent member of Al Azhar's Islamic Research Centre, said.
The number of girls wearing the niqab, though still not the norm, has been rising. Many have protested against what they claim is discrimination on university campuses and have launched petitions to reverse the ban.
More than 13 religious scholars have found that the face veil has no substantial roots in Islam, but rather can be considered a "form of extremism", the official MENA news agency cited Tantawi as saying.