On July 18, 2010, Syria issued a ban on the niqab, or full face veil, from its university campuses, including students and professors. Though the niqab, widely seen as a symbol of Islamism, has not been prevalent in Syria’s history, it has become more so over the last 25 to 30 years as Syrians returning from working abroad in the Gulf brought with them Islamist ideals. Syria, a Sunni Muslim majority country, has been ruled by the secularist nationalist Ba’ath party, led by minority Alawite Muslims, since 1963. In the 1980’s, the Syrian government put down an Islamist revolt in Hama by leveling the town, killing tens of thousands, including Islamists and their sympathizers. The ban is intended to curb Islamism in education and comes on the heals of 1,200 niqab-wearing schoolteachers being removed from the classroom and reassigned to desk jobs a month earlier.
Stage One: Agenda Setting
Because Syria is ruled by the minority Alawite Muslim-led secularist nationalist Ba’ath party and the majority in Syria is Sunni Muslim, the government is under constant threat by extremist elements among this minority – namely, Islamists. In addition to the previously mentioned revolt in Hama that President Asad’s father put down in the 1980’s, President Assad himself has had to intervene more recently to stop Islamists from pushing through legislation intended to pave the way for sharia, or Islamic law. Now, the growing prevalence of the niqab, especially in the educational milieu where it threatens to influence young students toward Islamism, has become a growing concern for the incumbent government in its struggle to maintain its secularist rule.
Stage Two: Policy Formulation
Since the niqab is widely viewed as a symbol of Islamism, the incumbent government hopes to nip Islamism in the bud by banning it from schools and universities, where it might otherwise play a role in inculcating Islamism in young student’s minds, breeding more Islamist extremists and sympathizers. The government is acting in part based on requests by concerned parents of students, especially those attending private universities. There is some speculation the government may also ban the niqab from all public spaces in its attempt to curb Islamism. Bans in either space, but especially a general ban, would also send a message to existing Islamists, like the one sent by President Asad’s father to the Islamists in Hama and their supporters in the 1980’s, that the incumbent regime will not tolerate Islamism in the least. Though Islamists and their sympathizers, and more especially those among them who either wear the niqab or promote the wearing of it, obviously disagree with the government’s actions, the majority of Syrians are in favor of the ban on the niqab in the educational milieu and many would also favor a more general ban. For the government, Islamism represents an existential threat that must be dealt with.
Stage Three: Policy Adoption
Being an authoritarian regime, it is incumbent upon Syria’s government to adopt policies that preserve its rule. Whenever a situation like the current growth of Islamist ideology among its population that has gradually been taking place over the last 25 to 30 years occurs, the regime must act decisively to preserve its rule. Naturally, if there is any debate about what policies to adopt in such a regime, these debates are internal to it and generally lack transparency. Authoritarian governments like Syria’s adopt policies at the command of their leadership without regard for opposing positions. In the case of the ban on the niqab in Syrian universities, it is known that the ban resulted from complaints issued by parents of private university students, the administrators of which universities met with the Ministry of Education, who then chose to adopt this policy.
Stage Four: Policy Implementation
Due to the authoritarian nature of the Syrian regime, the implementation of the policy adopted is as opaque as its adoption. Had it not been for an agent of the government who leaked information to the press, the Syrian people, including those banned from universities for wearing the niqab, might not have ever known that the policy had been adopted and implemented. As it is, all that is known about the implementation of the ban on the niqab in Syrian universities is that public and private universities are not to register anyone wearing the niqab, this by order of the Minister of Education. It is not even clear to some Syrian university administrators whether previously registered niqab-wear women may finish their studies.
Stage Five: Evaluation (and termination or adaptation if applicable)
Due to the generally opaque nature of an authoritarian government, one can only conjecture about the manner in which such a government goes about evaluating the policies it adopts. One can only say that this must be done in accordance with the interest of the government in self-preservation. Perhaps university administrators will again meet with the Ministry of Education to evaluate the policy at some future date. A clear advantage to authoritarianism is that if a policy does, upon evaluation, prove to be unsuccessful, it can be altered by command of the regime as quickly as it was implemented. One might conjecture, as previously mentioned, that should Syria’s ban on the niqab in universities, along with it’s prior ban on the niqab in schools, prove successful upon evaluation, it may be altered in the sense of being widened to encompass the greater public sphere.
While one cannot observe the policy evaluation process in an authoritarian government without being an insider, one can make one’s own evaluation, as many have already in the case of Syria’s ban on the niqab, and one can observe the outputs and outcomes of the policy given prior knowledge of the ban’s intended outputs and outcomes. Already a Syrian women’s rights group leader has suggested that the Syrian government should have better prepared those affected by the policy through public relations before adopting its ban on the niqab. Stakeholders such as those interested in wearing the niqab or promoting the wearing of it as well as those in favor of the ban have also weighed in, each party predictably in accordance with its own interests in the matter.
Conclusions and Interpretation
While Syria’s policy of banning the niqab from universities does not fit the policy model outlined above perfectly, the model nevertheless serves as a useful analytical or conceptual tool in methodically examining the structure of something as complex and opaque as Syria’s authoritarian regime’s policy process for the purposes of explaining or interpreting it. Breaking down the policy process into stages facilitates the analytical process by illuminating each step. That said, the biggest disparity between the policy herein analyzed and the policy process model is the transparency in the policy process the model assumes, which is in reality generally absent from the Syrian policy process. Nevertheless, the model provided many insights into the process that did in reality occur that may have otherwise been overlooked or misunderstood. Thus, it is, in fact, an invaluable tool.