The Niqab Debate at Al-Manouba University
One of the biggest scandals and debates to grip Tunisia over the past year has been a series of events that played out when a small number of female students at Al-Manouba university right outside of Tunis decided they wanted to wear the niqab to class. This incident has spiraled into a much larger series of events, that involves violent clashes, the replacing of the Tunisian flag with a black Salafist flag and of course, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences going on trial for physically assaulting two students.
Let's start at the beginning:
The niqab is not a normal "veil" as we think of it, as we are often accustomed to seeing in the West (hair and neck covered). The niqab covers the majority of the face as well, hiding everything but the eyes, or everything below the eyes. Moreover, it is worth point out that Al-Manouba is one of the most prestigious universities in Tunisia, as one of the large public universities serving the capital city, located only 15 kilometers outside the city, and easily served by the metro. It is a very liberal place, by regional standards -- I spent an afternoon visiting campus and found girls and boys essentially sitting in romantic places on campus making out (read: very liberal).
Moreover, the justifications for the ban on the niqab are not simply religious, or at least, they are not couched in religious terms, but pedagogical terms -- many of the university professors at Al-Manouba and throughout Tunisia have stated that they do not want to let girls wear the niqab in class because they believe that it negatively affects the participation of female students, and can mean that professors don't always know who their students are. In other words, it can negatively affect the teaching and learning environment.
Let's review the timeline of events.
November 1, 2011 Tensions between students and faculty at Al-Manouba rise because the University Scientific Council take the decision to ban the wearing of the niqab on campus.
November 28, 2011 A group of Salafist students protested the ban on wearing of the niqab at Al-Manouba University. They tried to enter classes wearing the niqab. The protesters held a sit-in in front of the Dean's office, and refused him entry to his office.
December 2011 Classes are shut down for about a week because of the tensions caused by previous protest.
January 16, 2012 A group of five female students said that they would go on a hunger strike until their demands to wear the niqab were met.
January 18, 2012 Four classes were suspended because students wearing the niqab tried to enter them.
February 28, 2012 A student wearing the niqab was not allowed into class at Al-Manouba, following the directives of the University Scientific Council, which had decided earlier that students wearing the niqab could not attend classes. As a result, classes were suspended indefinitely and professors started to strike until the niqab issue was resolved.
March 2, 2012 Six students were required to stand for the University Disciplinary Board for not respecting the rules of the university, which ban the wearing of the niqab, and for disrupting classes.
March 6, 2012 Two of the students punished for wearing the niqab (on March 2nd), barged into the Office of the University President and ransacked his office, demanding for an explanation for the decisions of the disciplinary committee. One of the students told a journalist that her reason for barging in was that had learned through the media that she had been expelled from the Faculty for six months. In the course of this incident, a rock was thrown through a window of the Deans office.
"What happened next is disputed by both sides. English department head Amel Jaidi claims that the two students broke into the Dean’s office and when asked to leave, they destroyed his office. The students claimed that the Dean violently attacked them; lawyers have threatened to bring a case against the Dean" (Suleiman, N., 04/13/2012)
March 7, 2012 Violent clashes broke out among students at the University of Al-Manouba, between Salafists demanding the right of female students to wear the niqab and those supporting the ban on the niqab. "As the situation on the campus escalated, one of the Salafist students replaced the Tunisian flag with a black flag bearing the shahada – the Islamic declaration of faith. The act provoked an eruption of violence between members of the student union and other students" (Tunisia Live, 03/07/12).
In an act that would then make her a national hero, a young female student Khaoula Rashidi attempted to climb the wall and take down the flag, only to be beaten back down.
July 5, 2012 Dean of Al-Manouba, Habib Kazdaghli, appears in front of the tribunal and is accused of physically abusing a student wearing the niqab. During this presentation of charges, the prosecution asked for the charges to be reclassified as "acts of violence by an official in carrying out his duties," which carry a possible punishment of up to three years in prison. (Some sources put this at five years).
October 25, 2012 Habib Kazdaghli first appears in front of the tribunal for the allegation of having commited violence against students.
November 22, 2012 The trial of Habib Kazdaghli was first postponed until November 15th, then November 22, and as of now, has been postponed until January 3rd, 2013.
Why is this niqab debate important?
One of the major issues, if not THE major issue, that Tunisia as a country is going through right now is the question of its future identity -- Tunisia is no longer a dictatorship under Ben Ali, but what is it? It isn't quite a democracy yet, as it is going through a slow transition -- but it does have freedom. One of the consistent findings from many of my interviews with Tunisians is that they now realize that freedom has both its advantages and disadvantages -- and that "freedom without security is not really freedom." For example, in an interview this evening with a young man (who says he leans towards the Salafist school of thought), he said: "Yes, we have freedom of expression now, but now people are free to rob you and attack you as well. Freedom without security and safety -- what type of freedom is that?"
In part, freedom in Tunisia now means allowing a scattering and splintering of a society that was kept together under iron fist of restricted speech for so long.
The niquab debate is about the right of girls in Tunisian universities to cover their faces entirely -- but it is not only about this -- it is about the future of Tunisia, and how Tunisia will reconcile it's various identites, as a majority Muslim nation, and a nation with long-standing state-enforced secularist policies.
It is true that support for the Salafists may be small and limited -- but it is also the most vocal element right now, and its demands seem down-right radical for a Tunisia with quite liberal and secular norms.
I think that there are a number of important points to make about the politicization of this event as well: the number of female students at Al-Manouba who want to wear the niqab number less than ten (according to sources I have read) in a university of thousands. So the idea that this has become such a large issue does suggest that there is an attempt by the Salafi elements to politicize the events.
Moreover, although I do understand some pedagogical reasons for not allowing the niqab in class (professors want to know their students/encourage speaking, etc), I also think that in a nation such as the US, where freedom of religious expression is viewed as a natural part of the larger right to freedom of expression, a truly vibrant university could handle a handful of students wearing the niqab without considering it a threat to the freedom and intellectual integrity of the university.
Rather, from what I have read, threats on university faculty, and general violence between Salafis and secularists on university campuses seem to be more of a threat to the integrity and stability university (after all, they have lead to the shutting down of classes during exams, and what not) -- it certainly seems to be more of a threat than some female students wearing the niqab. Unfortunately, in hindsight, it might actually have been worse for the University of Al-Manouba to hand the Salafis such an easy platform from which to take their message to the people than it would be to welcome niqab wearing students to campus.
I'm sure that some might denounce that a policy of "appeasement," but the role of religion in Tunisia is something that Tunisians will be working out for the foreseeable future...and the increasing Islamicization of Tunisian society may very well be the result of Tunisia's newfound freedom, regardless of how we feel about it in the West.
Personally, I just visited Al-Manouba and found incredibly Westernized young men and women sneaking around making out in the bushes -- it confirmed my faith in the liberalizing power of freedom -- if the university truly wants to be a bastion of free thought, why not let young people make their own choices about what they want to wear?