JERUSALEM, July 20, 2010 -- In a highly unusual move, the Syrian regime announced a nationwide, immediate ban on women wearing face-covering Islamic veils at universities.
The ban follows a similar ruling by the lower house of France's parliament this month. But unlike France, Syria is an Arab and predominantly Muslim country.
The ruling outlaws the wearing of the niqab, a garment which covers the face but allows a narrow slit for the eyes. It has not been widely worn in Syria in recent years but is becoming more popular, a trend that has worried the secular regime. The traditional, but far less severe Islamic head scarf, will still be allowed.
The country's education minister announced the move which affects all private and public universities in Syria.
"We have given directives to all universities to ban niqab-wearing women from registering," a statement read.
Another official from the Education Ministry told Al Arabiya TV the niqab was "against academic principles" and its wearing represented an "ideological invasion."
Despite Syria's close relationship with Iran and Hezbollah it has always clung to a secular ideal. Its ruling Baath Party recently denounced niqab wearing at a party conference.
In the 1980's an uprising by the country's radical Muslim Brotherhood was ruthlessly suppressed by President Hafez al Assad. Tens of thousands were allegedly killed when the government sent in the tanks to quell protests.
Last month more than 1,000 primary school teachers who wear the niqab were removed from their teaching posts and given administrative jobs.
Syria Bans Islamic Veil Despite Popularity
The number of women wearing Islamic attire in Syria has grown dramatically in recent years. Some attribute it to the number of Syrians who have spent time working in the more conservative Gulf states.
There has also been a sharp rise in the number of private girl's schools where more traditional versions of Islam are encouraged.
Despite the government's close ties to radical Islamic regimes in the region it seems that for now Syria is keen to remain strictly secular.