MS Risk Blog

Tunisia: The Politics of Headscarves

Posted on in Tunisia title_rule

On 14 February, the Tunisian government announced that security forces will tighten checks on women wearing niqab, or full-face veils. The decision comes after a 10 February incident in which a man wearing a niqab, described by officials as a “Salafist”, was arrested in the Ariana neighbourhood in northern Tunis. The public announcement has caused anger among political and human rights activists.

Headscarves in Tunisia

In 1981, under the regime of deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, headscarves in all forms were banned from schools or government buildings. In an effort to enforce conformity, police stopped women in the streets and asked them to remove their headscarves, telling them not to wear them again. It was considered a “sectarian” fashion which came to Tunisia “uninvited”. Many government officials believed that head scarves were being promoted by religious extremists with political ambitions. Over time, the niqab in particular grew to be viewed as a political symbol, more so than a religious one. In 2006, Tunisian authorities reinforced the ban. Though activists considered the ban a deprivation of human rights, under Ben Ali’s authoritative regime, the dissent was quickly quieted.

Following Ben Ali’s removal in January 2011, the practice of wearing headscarves increased significantly. Around 80% of Tunisian women wear a version of the traditionally accepted hijab, which covers the hair and ears, leaving the face uncovered. Though increasing in popularity, only 2% of women wear the niqab, which leaves only the eyes exposed. The full burqa, which leaves no features of the face exposed, is worn by less than 1% of the female population.

The increase in various forms of headscarves has been a hot topic of debate between Islamists and secularists. On university campuses, where niqab is still discouraged (and in some universities, banned completely), violent confrontations have occurred between factions on both sides of the debate. In 2012, a Tunisian university dean faced trial for allegedly slapping a female student wearing niqab. The woman in question was expelled for six months for refusing to remove her covering. The dean had previously complained that two students wearing niqab had vandalised his office. The event caused protests and sit-ins, as those who protested for their human rights rowed with those concerned about security.

The Political Debate

Political perceptions of headscarves shifted in 2011, when Islamist-leaning advocates, suppressed under the former regime, successfully installed the moderate-Islamist Ennahda party. The ban on headscarves was lifted and many women donned the niqab as a symbol of freedom and victory.

However, due to the Ennahda party’s perceived inability to maintain the economy and preserve national security, tensions quickly soared between the Islamist government and its secular opposition. The conflict was taken to crisis levels in 2013 with the assassination of two secular politicians, both attributed to Islamic extremists. After hard-fought political battles and negotiations, the Ennahda-led government stepped down in late-January 2014.

Tunisia has since installed an independent caretaker government and adopted a new constitution. In the weeks since the change, the debate against wearing niqab in particular has returned, but with another angle. Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddo has repeatedly stated that many fugitives have used the niqab to disguise themselves to avoid capture by security forces. Several men have been caught wearing niqab in an attempt to evade police. While security measures will be put in place to check the identities of those wearing niqab, Ben Jeddo emphasised that a total ban would be a political decision, one that sits outside of the Interior Ministry’s mandate.

Mufti supports niqab ban

Tunisia’s mufti, Sheikh Hamda Saeed, has declared his support for banning the niqab on security grounds, believing that leaders have the right to limit “things that are permissible if they find this to be in the best interests of the nation.”

The Mufti’s stance is considered a religious edict. The niqab, while permissible in Islam, is not a requirement. Activists and women who choose to wear niqab are concerned that the new security checks will come at the expense of their dignity. Tunisian security forces will walk a fine line.

The new constitution enshrines both freedom of religion and religious rights. The Tunisian Interior Ministry released a statement saying they will “strictly control every person wearing a niqab within the framework of the law.” As the niqab becomes increasingly politicised, care must be taken to maintain security, uphold the constitution, and avoid backlash from extreme factions who feel undermined by the new law.