Niqabs, like this one worn by Farhat Mirza, vice-president of the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals in Montreal, have been controversial in Egypt, where the government is attempting to restrict their use in schools. ((Peter Mccabe/Canadian Press))

A Canadian Muslim group wants the federal government to ban two kinds of garments, the burka and the niqab, worn by some women.

The Muslim Canadian Congress said the garments, which cover the face, have no basis in Islam.

The group's spokesperson, Farzana Hassan, said the practice of wearing the burka and niqab is more rooted in Middle Eastern culture than in religious teachings. She added that there is nothing in the Qur'an that stipulates women must cover their faces.

She said the issue is one of public safety.

"To cover your face is to conceal your identity," she said.

"If a government claims to uphold equality between men and women, there is no reason for them to support a practice that marginalizes women."

The burka is a veil that generally covers the entire body, with only a mesh screen left to see through. The niqab covers virtually all of the face — with a slit generally left open for the eyes.

The proposed ban would not extend to the hijab, the head scarf that leaves the face uncovered.

'People feel it's part of their identity'

Mohamed Elmasry, a former president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, downplayed the suggestion that the clothing presents a security risk, saying that only a minority of Muslim women in Canada wear the garments.

He said women should have the choice to cover their face if they wish.

"People feel it's part of their identity; people feel it's part of their culture," he said.

At her home in suburban Montreal, Affifa Naz said she chooses to cover her face behind the loose grey veil that leaves only her eyes visible. Anyone who says she's being forced to do it is insulting her intelligence, she added.

"Coming from a Muslim group, I would think that they would understand," Naz said.

"I mean, every group has their disagreements. You might not believe in it, but there are people who believe in it. I'm not telling you 'go and cover yourself,' [so] don't tell me to take it off, right? Simple as that."

On Thursday, the top Islamic cleric in Egypt barred students from wearing face veils in classes and dorms at Sunni Islam's leading institute of learning, al-Azhar.

The move by the sheik of al-Azhar, Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, is apparently part of a broader move by the Egyptian government to clamp down on public manifestations tied to ultraconservative Islam in the country.

Headscarves are common in Egypt but relatively few women wear the niqab, which is much more common in Saudi Arabia.

Some opponents have claimed that Tantawi's decision is unconstitutional.  

With files from The Canadian Press, The Associated Press