Syria has banned face-covering Islamic veils from the country’s universities.
The surprise move comes as similar moves in Europe – including controversial calls in Britain for a ban on burkas – have sparked cries of discrimination against Muslims.
The crackdown was ordered by the secular government in Damascus amid fears of increasing Islamic extremism among young Muslim students.
Syria is not a Muslim country. An official at the ministry says the ban affects public and private universities and aims to protect the country's secular identity
Sunday’s ban includes women wearing niqabs, veils covering the head and mouth while leaving the eyes exposed, and the head-to-toe burkas, which also cover the eyes with a mesh mask.
It did not include the hijab, or headscarf, which many Syrian women wear.
As many as 1,200 women teachers wearing niqabs and burkas are also said to have been transferred out of Syrian schools and universities and reassigned to government offices where they would not come into contact with students.
While plans to introduce a burka ban in Britain have prompted a fierce debate, most Syrians reportedly welcomed the clampdown.
Many are said to be in favour of a wider ban on burkas and niqabs from all public places.
'Hijabs and niqabs have been a symbol of oppression and religious extremism over the past hundreds of years. They have been a tool used by fundamentalist men to repress women,' said Ahmed, a 32-year-old engineer.
One passer-by in an upscale Damascus suburb said the burka to him was like a ‘walking black ghost.’
YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN: The burka empowering women? You must be mad, minister
Syria’s Minister of Higher Education Ghyath Barakat is said to have told his top officials: ‘We will not leave our daughters a prey for extremist thoughts.’
A general view of Damascus, the Syrian capital. The crackdown was ordered by the secular government in Damascus amid fears of increasing Islamic extremism among young Muslim students
An aide added: ‘The minister has totally rejected this phenomena which contradicts with the academic values and traditional morals and ethics of the Syrian society.
Syrian engineer, 32: 'Hijabs and niqabs have been a symbol of oppression and religious extremism over the past hundreds of years. They have been a tool used by fundamentalist men to repress women'
‘Our students are our children and we will not abandon them to extremist ideas and practices.’
The authoritarian regime acted to stamp out a wave of fundamentalism fed by the invasion of Iraq and anger over violence in the Palestinian territories.
The pan-Arab Ba’ath party, which has been in power since 1963, crushed an extremist movement in the 1980s after it launched a string of deadly attacks across Syria.
In Britain, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman spoke out earlier this week to defend a woman’s right to wear burkas.
She insisted women were ‘empowered’ by the freedom to wear the veils.
Her remarks came after Immigration Minister Damian Green resisted Tory demands for a ban, saying it would be ‘rather un-British.’
But Tory MP Philip Hollobone, who has tabled a private member’s bill making it illegal for anyone to cover their faces in public, insisted: ‘We are not a Muslim country.
'Covering your face in public is strange and to many people both intimidating and offensive.’
Spain is to debate banning the burka this week, while the lower houses of parliament in France and Belgium have already approved a ban.
Holland is considering a similar move.
The niqab and the burka are not widespread in Syria, although they have become more common recently.
The secular, authoritarian government has recently tried to curry favour by rallying to the cry of moderate Islam at home.
But it remains wary of Islamic fundamentalism, which is a threat to its power - especially in education.
Last month, hundreds of primary school teachers who wear the niqab were moved to administrative jobs, local media reported.
Two-Thirds of British Favor Burqa Ban...