Niqab or Not: All Tunisian Women Deserve Education

Friday, December 2, 2011

A secular-Islamist confrontation overtakes a Tunisian campus and a month ago a woman wearing a full-face veil was banned at another university. Hajer Naili criticizes both sides of a social conflict constricting the hopes of the revolution.

(WOMENSENEWS)--Tensions between secularists and Islamists are rising daily in Tunisia.

A flashpoint right now is in the capital, Tunis, home to Manouba University. On Nov. 28, the dean of humanities and literature at Manouba, along with some students and professors, were held by a group of men--so-called Salafists--who seek to implement a purist interpretation of Islam and overturn secularist laws.

Clashes continued on Wednesday as classes were cancelled. The Islamist protesters blocked all accesses to the campus. Yesterday, many students and representatives of UGET, the students' union, gathered in Bardo, a suburb of Tunis, to establish a camp to protest against the violence and the attempts at imposing religious beliefs at the university.

These hardliners are not associated with Ennahda, the so-called moderate Islamist party that recently won the elections in Tunisia. But they may have been emboldened by Ennahda's victory.

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They are demanding admission for female students wearing the niqab (a full-face veil), a campus prayer room and single-sex classrooms. The niqab was totally banned from the country under the previous regime and headscarf was not allowed in public spaces, including universities.

The group was apparently provoked by the refusal, a month ago, of a university in the city of Sousse to enroll a woman wearing a niqab.

"The niqab prevents the process of conveying the academic message and neither professors nor students are able to communicate properly when the niqab is involved," an administrator at that school said at the time.

Turned Two Ways

This story turns me two ways.

I strongly condemn this and other actions by those seeking to popularize a puritanical form of Islam that is alien to Tunisia.

With a rigid interpretation of the Quran, they aim for the introduction of their reading of Sharia as state law. I am not saying that the presence of Salafists is a problem, but it becomes an issue when they use violence and intimidation to impose their mindset. They have stormed several campuses since the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to pressure female students and teachers to cover their hair.

Such actions have nothing to do with the Tunisian revolution and I am extremely angry and worried to see a minority of people trying to hijack it. Friends and relatives involved with the revolution have told me that extremists were not on the frontline in January and didn't put their lives at risk when thousands of Tunisians were ready to take bullets to free the country from Ben Ali's dictatorship.

At the same time, the university in Sousse was wrong. Female students should be allowed to attend class wearing their clothing choices.

Tunisia has the highest female literacy rate in North Africa and women make up 61 percent of students. If universities in Tunisia ban women from wearing the niqab, they will lose a chance at education, with little choice but to stay home. And keeping women who wear the niqab on the fringe of the society will only widen the gap between secularists and Islamists.

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Equality/Women’s Rights

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This is why you do not even begin to compromise with extremists: "Iranian women are fighting the controversial 'Family Protection Bill' that would reduce Iranian women's rights even further, Amnesty International reported Nov. 30. If passed, the bill will allow men to take up to three additional wives without the consent or knowledge of their first spouse." (from womensenews Dec 2, 2011). This clearly does not protect families, it protects men's rights to destroy women's equal role in their own family, in their and their children's lives.

This article deals with the crucial issue of where education and religion interface. With respect, I disagree with the stance taken by the author. Tunisia has accomplished a relatively high standard of education for women, because it has not bowed to extreme Islamist positions on women. If you begin to do so, it will only get worse, with the Islamist men making more and more demands as time goes on, and soon it will be impossible for women in Tunisia to even think about equal rights. I agree with the Tunisian university that said that proper communication is impossible with veiled people. I take this another step, and say that communication by the veiled person is impossible; that is one of the worst problems with veiling. Another problem is health, simply not having access to sun rays every day decreases vitamin D severely, and I doubt that this is made up in their diets. You cannot prevent a divide by acceding to ways based upon lack of education and respect. You can only try to reach these women and men, and to make the case for not veiling on respectful, true, educational grounds.
I wish Tunisia great success in their revolution for both men and women.