Tunisia Veil Case Threatens Struggle Over What Founder called An Odious Rag

Jan. 3 (Bloomberg) — Saida Akremi, a Tunisian lawyer, specializes in human rights — including the right to wear the Muslim headscarf that her country’s late founder called an “odious rag.”

In a case that has sent ripples through this North African nation, Akremi won a lawsuit on behalf of a schoolteacher contesting the scarf’s ban in state buildings and schools. The ruling won’t be enforced across the country, the government says, on the grounds that it divides rather than unites.

Tunisia, which became independent from France in 1956, has long presented itself as a European-oriented secular bastion in the Middle East. Its first president, Habib Bourguiba, used the “odious rag” term for the hijab, as the veil is called, because he viewed it as a hindrance to progress.

“For me, people have the right to wear what they want,” Akremi said. She herself has worn the veil since 1995, she said, including in court.

“Tunisia has made the choice in favor of the emancipation of women, and the veil has come to identify an appeal based on sectarianism,” said Bochra Malki, a government spokeswoman.

This view parallels campaigns waged by secular governments across the Middle East. Many leaders — even the monarchy in Morocco, whose King Mohammed VI claims direct descent from the prophet Mohammed — regard the hijab as an Islamic political statement rather than a pious religious accessory.


“The hijab is spreading, and so are Islamic political movements,” said Mohammed Fantar, a professor of Islamic history at Manar University in Tunis. “Some governments feel threatened and think the two go hand-in-hand.” Tunisia is among them, he said.

The Turkish military, self-styled guardians of the country’s lay tradition, tried and failed last summer to block the rise of former Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to the presidency. The reason: His wife wears a headscarf. Turkey, governed by an Islamic party, is officially secular.

Last year in Morocco, the government removed pictures of a mother and daughter wearing the hijab from a school textbook, on the grounds it is a political symbol, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Jordan’s Queen Rania, on recent visits to Western countries, stressed that the hijab isn’t mandatory under Islam or in Jordan.

Widespread Use

In Egypt, Cairo’s Helwan University barred women from wearing veils over their faces on security grounds. Wearing headscarves, once a minority practice, is widespread in Egypt, although last April a court in Cairo upheld a government ban on state-television news presenters wearing them on the air.

Almost all of Tunisia’s 10 million people are Muslim. Bourguiba, who took power after the 1956 independence from France and ruled until 1987, largely removed the scarf from public view.

He banned it from government offices in 1981; the prohibition was later expanded to schools and other public places. Tunisia’s constitution bars political parties based on religion.

In the Tunisian court case, Saeeda Adalah asked to be allowed to wear the headscarf when she taught school. On Oct. 10, a court in Tunis ruled the country’s ban unconstitutional.

Officials quickly asserted that the judgment wouldn’t be applied to daily life. “The decision will make no difference,” said Malki, the government spokeswoman.

Akremi, the lawyer, agreed that the court’s decision would lead to no immediate reversal of the ban; that would have to be decided by parliament.

Scarf in School

“We cannot speak of annulment of the ban, just a court opinion,” she said in a telephone interview. Adalah herself has returned to the classroom and is allowed to wear the veil, Akremi said.

Zine Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s president since Bourguiba’s ouster in 1987, has called the hijab “an imported form of sectarian dress” that “does not fit with Tunisia’s cultural heritage.” At a meeting of the state-dominated National Union of Tunisian Women, officials demanded that women in the audience remove their veils and in some cases, tugged on them, according to a 2006 U.S. State Department human-rights report on Tunisia.

“The authorities stepped up harassment of women wearing the hijab (Islamic headscarf),” Amnesty International, the human-rights group, said in its 2007 report on Tunisia. “Some women were reportedly ordered to remove their hijabs before being allowed into schools, universities or workplaces; and others were forced to remove them in the street,” the report said.

Government Concern

An Oct. 5 conference on religious intolerance underscored government concern over the hijab. The meeting focused on takfir, the practice under which Muslims can accuse other Muslims of having abandoned their religion and who, as a result, can be punished even with death.

The meeting was a show of support for Saloua Charfi, a professor at the Tunis-based Journalism and Information Sciences Institute. Charfi had written articles challenging Islamic dress codes and received threats from preachers that she might be declared takfir. Charfi declined to be interviewed.

Fantar, the historian, backs the government’s stand on headscarves. “They are an import by way of satellite television,” he said. “It’s a menace for all.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday January 4, 2008.
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