A group of clerics have launched a legal bid to overturn a rule banning civil servants from wearing the niqab to work.
The lawsuit was filed Sunday at the high court by two lawyers and 11 clerics, of whom a majority belong to the religious Islamic group, Jamiyathul Salaf.
It follows an uproar over the education ministry sacking a teacher and suspending another for wearing the face-covering veil to school.
The plaintiffs are seeking to remove a clause on the dress code for civil servants stating that employees must “dress in a manner that makes him or her identifiable easily.”
The petition said: “There is no doubt amongst Islamic scholars that the niqab is permissible in Islam. The only doubt is on whether it is compulsory or not.”
Barring women from covering their faces at work violates the Maldivian constitution, it said, including a clause stating Islam to be the religion of the state and a clause barring the enforcement of laws that contravene an Islamic tenet.
The constitution also mandates the Maldivian authorities to defend Islam, it added.
Abdul Maniu Hussain, one of the plaintiffs, said the state must protect rights of people who chose to follow a more conservative version of Islam.
“No one practicing Islam should be prevented from doing so. What we are saying is if a woman wants to reveal her face let them do so. But let her cover her face if that is what she believes,” he said.
The ban on the niqab has stirred debate online and divided rights groups.
Uthema, a new women’s rights group, said students learn better when they are able to see their teacher’s faces. However, acknowledging that the niqab ban affects a woman’s right to employment, it called on the government to set strong policies on hiring and dismissals, instead of taking abrupt measures.
The Maldivian Democracy Network meanwhile welcomed the ban saying “that covering one’s faces in public poses a threat to those around them.”
“While Maldives have had a high rise in cases of child abuse and violence, it is imperative that schools be an absolutely safe environment for children.”
Earlier this month, at the conclusion of a three-day religious conference, the Islamic ministry published an action plan for Islam in the Maldives, which said that “wearing the niqab, growing the beard and keeping one’s lower garments at ankle-length are permitted in Islam and do not constitute as extremism.”
Newspaper Mihaaru reported that the Islamic University of Maldives, then called the Islamic College, lifted a ban on students wearing the niqab in 2012 following an uproar.
Correction: February 5, 2017
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the lawsuit was launched by Jamiyathul Salaf. It was launched by 13 clerics, of whom a majority belong to the religious group.