At the beginning of this academic year, the full face veil was banned in universities in Tunisia. When the University of Sousse, 140km south of Tunis, refused to enrol one woman who was wearing the niqab, 200 people stormed the building in protest, carrying banners demanding the students’ right to wear a veil. Secularists then called for a counter-protest against religious violence, which also involved around 200 people.
Whilst 98% of the population is Muslim, Tunisia has a secular constitution. In fact, the full face veil has not been seen in public places for twenty years, as ousted president Ben Ali had banned the hijab (which covers the head but not the whole face) in 1981.
The BBC calls Tunisian political culture “profoundly moderate” and claims that it is considered to be “one of the most liberal Arab countries.” But with a different government, this reputation could change. Reuters say that since the president fled in January, “conservative Muslims [have been] free to express their views and adopt the outward trappings of their beliefs.” The website On Islam says that whilst many Tunisians are proud of their secular constitution, “Ben Ali was accused of using the spectre of fundamentalism to beat up on his opponents and stifle religious freedom.” Now that he’s gone, women have been allowed to wear the hijab in ID cards since April last year and men are allowed to have beards in them.
“There is certainly a strong argument in this debate that centres on human rights. In France, where covering the face behind a veil was made illegal earlier last year, women who protested against the ban talked of their “civil liberties” and many vowed to take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights if stopped by police.”
This said, Ennhada (‘Renaissance’ in Arabic), a moderate Islamist party which won the most seats in the elections last autumn, supports the ban in universities. Their leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has vowed to “uphold women’s rights and not try to impose strict Muslim values on society.” He ambitiously claimed that his party could “find a balance between modernity and Islam.” In fact, the relaxing of rules about what men and women are allowed to wear in ID cards being followed a few months later by the banning of the full face covering in universities points less to balance than to inconsistency in policy.
But can it ever be right to ban the full face veil in universities? I asked students, and the responses were varied. Numerous practical considerations arose. Covering the face hinders communication, a vital element in a course like medicine where students have to learn how to put patients at ease. Group presentations and seminars become more difficult without the cues we naturally pick up on from people’s expressions and gestures and it would be more difficult to understand a lecturer who wore one. Identification becomes much harder and one person pointed out that it would allow someone to sit in for someone else in an exam.
The concept of a full face veil was criticised too. Some argued that it represents oppression of women and insinuates that the female form is something to be ashamed of. Many students expressed concern over the wearing of the full face veil after admitting they suspected most women who wear them to have been forced to do so by a male relative.
Among those who said that it was right to ban the full face veil, there was a general consensus that it carries a greater meaning when worn in Britain. People find it intimidating, and some even take it personally when a woman chooses to wear one, as if this is a statement against Western society and a rejection of Europe.
But there were many who said that they didn’t believe that a university or even a state has the right to ban the full face veil. The university’s ‘Policy Statement on Dress Code’ stipulates that, “The University of Nottingham welcomes the diversity of appearance that people from different religious and belief backgrounds can bring.”
Whether or not you believe that covering your hair or your whole face is required by Islam, whether or not you think such a requirement is right if it does exist, and whether or not you feel this practice is compatible with life in Britain, a broader consideration is that of the right to freedom of choice. More important than any abstract and undefined ‘western values’ is the right to express yourself and your religion in a peaceful and harmless way, and the right to accept and be accepted on a level of openness and understanding.
It is interesting that in the Tunisian interim government, which was responsible for deciding to ban the veil in universities, there were actually only two women. In fact, in an article in Think Africa Press, the first months of post-Revolution Tunisia were described by Valentine Moghadam, an expert in social change in the Middle East and North Africa, as a ‘democracy paradox’; the author of said article, Kristine Goulding, also called it “a post-protest period of democratic freedom that simultaneously witnessed the disappearance of women’s representation.” Goulding went on to explain that many women who had been involved in Ben Ali’s government were excluded in the transitional government for that very reason, while others were hindered by “massive structural impediments.” There is something very wrong with a government, made up almost exclusively of men, talking about what dress code to enforce upon women, whilst asking those very members of society affected by such changes to wait outside while the grownups talk.
There is certainly a strong argument in this debate that centres on human rights. In France, where covering the face behind a veil was made illegal earlier last year, women who protested against the ban talked of their “civil liberties” and many vowed to take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights if stopped by police. A ban such as this has been seen by many as a sort of message to the Muslim population. In an article from The Guardian, Samy Debah, head of the French Collective against Islamophobia, said: “The niqab law is a pretext to reduce the visibility of Muslims in public spaces. It exposes an old French colonial reflex, that ‘Arabs and blacks’ only understand force and you can’t talk to them.” Even banning the wearing of religious symbols in schools, as a continuation of the policy of separation of religion and state, has been used in many cases to target Muslim students and make them feel unwelcome. The danger here is the motivation behind the ban.
That a person should have the right to express his or her identity in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone is expressed beautifully in the actions of Rachid Nekkaz, a wealthy French businessman and the son of Algerian immigrants, who has vowed to put aside money to pay all burqa fines. He said last year, “one million sounds a lot, but to protect one’s liberty, it’s not much.”