Here’s an article I wrote for SBS News on the contentious issue of the niqab in Tunisian education. It seems to me, as an outsider, that universities should be places where people can where what they want, within reason. The powers that be at Manouba University don’t agree, however, and are keeping the niqab from class. It’s received plenty of media attention, so I headed out there to see for myself.
‘They said we could have a prayer room if we dropped our demand to let niqabs in the classroom’ Mohammed told me through an interpreter, stroking his long, patchy beard. ‘So we said no.’
Tunis’s Manouba University has, if the newspapers are to be believed, become the front line in a new national debate over the place of religion – and religious attire – in post-revolution Tunisia.
Mohammed, a young man with a friendly-enough demeanour and tinted glasses hiding an eye twitch, is the lead Salafist on campus.
At least that’s what I’m told – as tends to happen in Tunisia, where Tunisians themselves are still learning, he says he’s not a Salafist.
It certainly is something of a bogey word amongst the secular elite and sections of the media here and overseas, and it’s used to attack people like him, he says.
He has two main goals he is keen to push: a prayer room on campus, and giving girls the right to wear the niqab into class.
On the day I visit, the Tunisian flag is flying high above the entrance to the university. Last year, the university gained notoriety when ‘Salafists’ took the flag down and replaced it with their black-flag of choice, following the denial of entry to a female student in Niqab, and the tremendous he-said she-said which ensued.
The issue scandalised the Tunisian media and made world headlines. In a country which was still debating the role of Sharia in the constitution, the position of minorities in the country, and what it means to be a Tunisian, it has rallied supporters of different causes.
But while plenty of secular Tunisians spit venom when talking about growing hordes of ‘barbarians’ with the beards and niqabs, many students on campus think the university mishandled the matter.
Habib Karzdaghli, dean of the Arts and Humanities department, is keen on defending his handling of the ensuing hunger strike and the ongoing ban on the niqab in class.