Lifting the veil on religious freedom in Tunisia

Lifting the veil on religious freedom in Tunisia
Analysis: The post-revolution government ended the Ben Ali regime's ban on the niqab, but now society is once again grappling with its use, says Conor Shiels.
3 min read
30 April, 2015
Tunisian conservative Muslims feel increasingly under attack [AFP]

Tunisian women who choose to cover their face with a niqab have long complained of routine discrimination and harassment from security forces and police.

The face veil was banned during the years of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali's rule, and those who flouted the law faced prison.

Following the 2011 revolution, many hoped for greater religious freedom under the moderate Islamist Ennahdha party.

For a time this rang true as conservative and secular Tunisians walked side-by-side.

But following the brutal attack on tourists at Tunis' Bardo museum by Islamic State group militants, many fear there will be limits to these freedoms.

There has been a crackdown by the security forces on groups considered extremist by the government.

The fear now is that this scrutiny will extend to those considered "overly-devout" by the Beji Caid Essebsi administration.

Already there have been a number of signs that the attitudes of the former regime are returning.

Religious affairs minister Othman Battikh recently told reporters he would have "no problem" with a country-wide ban on the veil.

"Religion necessitates covering the body with a respectable outfit but does not require the wearing of the niqab as some believe," he said.

Battikh, who previously served in the ministry during the Ben Ali years, was dismissed in 2012 but returned as minister for the new government earlier this year.

In recent weeks security officials arrested two women wearing the niqab in the tourist resort of Sousse.

Police claim that the pair were later found in possession of a laptop containing Islamic State group propaganda. They were then transferred to the anti-terrorism unit in Gorjani.

It remains unclear whether the security forces chose to apprehend the women simply because of their conservative appearance.

Unfortunately, this level of scrutiny has forced some Tunisians to alter their appearance, fearing that they would be singled out as "extremists" or out of step with the views of the country's secular ruling elite.

"The atmosphere has changed. I shaved off my beard because I don't want to be watched by the police," Moez, a religious conservative in Tunis, told Reuters.

"Even I am against terrorism or any extremism that damages Islam's image," he added.

Face change

Many Muslims are unlikely to be surprised by the government's latest move to limit religious expression.

In February 2014, the ministry of interior said it would introduce stricter controls on the niqab.

     The atmosphere has changed. I shaved off my beard because I don't want to be watched by the police.
Moez, Tunis resident

"In light of the terrorist threats that the country is witnessing and as some suspects and fugitives deliberately wear niqab for disguise and to escape from security units, the ministry will tighten procedural controls on every person wearing a niqab within the framework of what is authorised by law," the ministry said in a statement.

The issue is a contentious one for many Tunisians.

In 2012, Manouba university students went on hunger strike in to protest against a niqab ban by the university administration.

However, others in Tunisia argue that authorities must increase checks on those wearing the niqab, in order to protect public safety.

On 17 September 2012, the leader of Ansar Sharia, Seifeddine Ben Hassine, disguised himself with a niqab to flee al-Fath Mosque in the centre of Tunis, which was surrounded by police.

The incident, while not isolated, is certainly in a minority of cases where criminals have used the garment as a disguise.

Despite this, the level of distrust of those who choose to wear the veil remains high in certain quarters. A recent petition to ban the niqab gathered several hundred signatures.

The future of religious freedom in Tunisia remains unclear but for now the struggle between the liberal secular state and the country's conservatives looks set to continue.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.