(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.

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.

Moving the Country Forward

The Tunisian revolution was meant to move the country forward, not backward. If we really want to see a democracy in Tunisia, people should sit at the same table and talk in order to reach a consensus. You cannot build a democracy by using violence to impose your views. A democracy should be based on the plurality of perspectives and ideas.

I believe it is up to people to leave their stereotypes aside and try to establish communication with women wearing niqabs.

A face veil is often said to obstruct communication. I once believed this myself, because I had no actual contact with women wearing niqabs. But since then I’ve had numerous interactions that changed my mind. This past Ramadan, as I was breaking the fast at a mosque in Manhattan, I had a conversation with an American face-veiled woman. She was well-educated, eloquent and persuasive. Seeing her face would have changed nothing about our discussion.

What really hinders the ability of face-veiled women to communicate are preconceived notions about the veil’s inhibiting effects.

Most of the women I have met have made a free choice to wear the niqab. Contrary to what many Westerners might assume, they aren’t forced. According to their interpretation of the Quran, no man except their relatives should see their face. They also feel closer to God by being totally covered.

As for the concern about security risks, campuses are full of women who can check these students’ identities.

A permissive attitude towards the niqab might cause visions of such women filling up classrooms and dominating the atmosphere. But let’s be realistic. The majority of Tunisians may be Muslim, but Tunisia is a secular state. It is not an Islamic state, so we don’t need the single-sex classes called for by the Salafists. There are always private schools for families that don’t like mixed classes.

Tunisian universities should let their doors be open to everyone.

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Hajer Naili is an editorial intern for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa.