A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Battle over Niqab in Tunisia

With Islamists holding the largest number of seats in the Tunisian constituent assembly, a new Islamist Prime Minister in Morocco, Islamists playing a major role in Libya (though largely unrepresented in the interim Cabinet), and the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi al-Nour Party running strong in the Egyptian elections' first round, some secularists are worried that the whole northern tier of Africa is suddenly turning into a hotbed of Islamism. I think we need to see what happens next: I'm not convinced that all Islamists everywhere are incapable of functioning within a pluralist system.

Tunisia has long been the most Westernized North African country by far, where women have equal rights with men in almost every sphere, there is a French-influenced secularism in place and President Bourguiba famously once sipped orange juice during Ramadan on national television. The large number of European tourists on Tunisia's beaches are mostly French, German, and Italian, and dress as they would on beaches on the opposite shore of the Med, with the Tunisians largely not objecting.

The fact that an Islamist party, Al-Nahda, led in the elections has of course caused some concern; Tunisia is, however, not just Avenue Bourguiba (or whatever they're calling it now) in Tunis, and the beach resorts: it's Kairouan and the rural areas as well. And Al-Nahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi's daughter is one of his main spokespeople, suggesting that he at least (though perhaps not all of Al-Nahda's rank and file) is indeed moderate. (Exiled Islamists usually go to Saudi Arabia or someplace similar. Ghannouchi spent 20 years in London.)

In this transitional period we're seeing our first Islamist-secularist confrontations (well, there were a few earlier ones, but these are the first I've blogged about): over several days now, Salafis and secularists have been clashing at the University of Manouba, in a university town west of the capital, over the niqab, the full body-and-face-veil. The university refused to let women wearing niqab to take their exams. (Egyptian universities have imposed similar rules, arguing that a fully veiled woman might not actually be the student being graded.) Salafi students and Salafis from outside the university protested, shutting down classes and, or a while, holding the dean hostage. Press reports here and here, a blog post from blogger A Tunisian Girl (who was a mainstay during the revolution) here. (Though her blog is titled in English and Arabic, this post is in French.)

A video report here:

I do believe there are religious freedom issues here, but also security issues. In several Arab countries niqab-wearing women must unveil to prove their identity for certain purposes, and making sure you're not sending in a ringer to take an exam for you seems to be a valid one. On the other hand, Tunisian secularists  may just be reacting viscerally to the idea of niqab. Certainly I know many Muslim women who, even in the West, choose to wear hijab, but that's not the issue here. I can't say I actually know any women who, uninfluenced by their fathers/husbands/brothers, choose to wear niqab, but that's in part because they wouldn't engage in conversation with an unrelated male anyway. I'd be furious if Manouba University were requiring niqab, but I'm not so sure about the wisdom of banning it, if some form of security and identification procedures can be implemented.

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