Secularism is particularly important to Damascus because the president comes from the minority Alawite Muslim sect. Though many sects of Islam and Christianity coexist in Syria, it is majority Sunni. And the regime is particularly sensitive to Islamism: Nearly three decades ago, President Bashar al-Assad’s father brutally put down an Islamist uprising, killing thousands of civilians by leveling the town of Hama, where the rebellion was centered.
The niqab has become increasingly visible in many societies across the Middle East, particularly in secular nations where miniskirts were once appropriate street attire for women. Some say it marks a wave of conservatism picked up by workers who move to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations and then bring those countries' conservative brand of Islam home with them.