A teacher in southern Egypt cut the hair of two 14-year-old girls as punishment for not wearing Muslim headscarves. The incident has fueled fears the country’s Islamist government is emboldening hardline movements and encroaching on personal rights.
The father of one of the girls, Berbesh Khairi, decried the teacher’s actions, filing a complaint with the local prosecutor’s office and pulling his daughter from the school following the incident.
The girls’ teacher reportedly forced them to stand with their hands above their heads for two hours before cutting their hair. The school is located in the village of Qurna in the southern Luxor province, around 500 kilometers from Cairo.
In response to the incident the governor of Luxor said that the teacher Eman Abu Bakar had been transferred to another school for the “shameful” act, but refrained from any further comments.
Eman Abu Bakar defended her actions to Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, maintaining that the amount of hair she chopped off “did not exceed two centimeters.”
She underlined that she only resorted to cutting the girls’ hair after giving them repeated warnings for not covering their heads with the traditional hijab. After the girls refused to comply Abu Bakar said that one of the other students gave her a pair of scissors as other pupils urged her “to carry out” her threat.
The Cairo’s Institute of Human Right condemned the incident as “alarming”, but said that it came as no surprise.
"Whether in schools or outside schools, the general sentiment is that any abusive action, if it is justified as protection of Islam, is tolerable,” said human rights activist Ziad Abdel Tawab to AP.
Rights groups say that some more hardline Islamist groups have become more outspoken since the ascension to power of the Muslim Brotherhood and there are worries the new constitution could put Egypt on the road to Sharia law.
Several cases have already caught the attention of the international media. A court in Cairo postponed the trial of 27-year Coptic Christian who is charged with insulting Islam on Wednesday.
Alber Saber was taken into custody after his neighbors denounced him for posting the incendiary film Innocence of the Muslims on his Facebook account last month. Saber is currently on trial for using religion to “promote extremist thoughts with the intention of creating dissent or insulting a Abrahamic religion” or “undermining national unity.”
Amnesty International describes the Saber as a prisoner of conscience and says that trials like Saber’s set a dangerous precedent for freedom of speech in the country.
"Criticism of religions and other beliefs and ideas is a vital component of the right to freedom of expression," Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International said on Tuesday. "Laws – such as blasphemy laws – that criminalize such criticism violate human rights."
Millions of Egyptians flooded the streets in January of last year in support of the revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. The revolutionary ideas pioneered during the uprising are being brought into question now that the Muslim Brotherhood has taken office given that the new government still retains many of the remnants of Mubarak’s former regime.