The victory last October of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda (‘Renaissance’) in Tunisia's first election since the revolution intensified the controversy that was already brewing over women students opting to wear the niqab, or full face veil, on university campuses.
Older Tunisian academics have memories of the fierce polemics that set Islamists against secular leftists on campuses in Tunisia, and elsewhere in North Africa, in the 1980s.
The current dispute over the niqab has allowed those who worry that Islamists in government might restrict academic freedom to stake out defensive turf.
Beset by major political problems during its first weeks in office, the Islamist-led coalition government largely avoided taking sides, even as opponents accused it of at best inaction, and at worst collusion with ultra-conservative Salafist students who were in a stand-off with staff at the humanities faculty of Manouba University near Tunis.
However, on 9 February the new Higher Education Minister, Ennahda’s Moncef Ben Salem, sallied out to tell the Tunis-based Al Akhbar newspaper that the problem had been exaggerated.
Of 200,000 women students at Tunisia's universities in 2011-12, he said, only about 90 wore the niqab. He reiterated that he rejected the use of violence and the infiltration of certain campuses by activists from outside.
Ben Salem, a mathematics professor, was a political prisoner for some four years under the regime of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, which was ousted by the revolution a year ago.
He went on to say, however, that the dean and lecturers at the Manouba faculty should “bear the responsibility” for having refused to compromise and having allowed the issue to flare into a full-scale dispute:
“I say in all clarity that it is the political partisanship of the dean, Habib Qazdaghli, that is behind the crisis over the niqab at Manouba.” A university was no place for party politics, he added.
The dean and lecturers at Manouba make the pedagogical argument that for good teacher-student interaction the teacher needs to see a student’s face. And there is an autobiographical dimension, Qazdaghli explained to reporters.
As a secondary student from a poor village, he attended a state boarding school where the uniform gave him confidence to progress through a meritocratic system; he therefore opposes dress codes that make one student stand out from another.
He also made it clear that, along with many of his academics, he sees niqab-wearing on campus as the first step down a slippery slope towards obscurantism and the undermining of Tunisia’s largely secular educational system.
And he made little secret of his sympathies for the Qotb front, of secularist and leftist parties, which unsuccessfully challenged Ennahda in the October election for a constituent assembly.
As of last week, an uneasy stalemate prevailed at Manouba.
Faculty regulations banning the niqab in classrooms and examination halls were being enforced – at a cost of ongoing tension and disruptions, as lecturers have instructions to suspend the class if a woman student declines to unveil her face.
The faculty board has rejected a compromise adopted elsewhere for exams, whereby a woman member of staff is on hand to check the identity of niqab-wearing students.
The dean's office had as yet no figures on how many women students may have abandoned their courses rather than attend class unveiled. But 11 exam papers completed by women students in January had been annulled as the students in question had worn the niqab, it said.
On 3 February the deans of humanities faculties at the universities of Sousse, Sfax, Kairouan and the 9-Avril campus in Tunis declared in a statement that they supported Manouba in rejecting the niqab in classrooms. They also said they rejected any return to interior ministry policing of campuses.
As reported by University World News, some 200 lecturers and students demonstrated outside the higher education ministry in early January, calling for firm action by the new government to dislodge the small group of Salafists at Manouba who were demanding freedom for women to wear the niqab everywhere on campus, and also for a room to be set aside as a prayer-room.
The Salafists’ sit-in, begun in November, was delaying the start of the spring term. Lecturers, alarmed by incidents last autumn when Salafists attempted to intimidate academics at Manouba, Sousse and Kairouan, may have drawn some reassurance from the overwhelming display of force – including scores of riot police – sent to Manouba the following day.
Even the Islamist-led government, it seemed, wanted to show it would not be intimidated by ultra-conservative Islamists. Qazdaghli, who was on hand to speak, explained that the security forces were on the campus with his permission.
In the event, no force was used. The Salafist protesters made statements for the TV cameras before ending the sit-in and walking off into the night with their mattresses. They came back a fortnight later with a media-savvy announcement of a hunger-strike by four women students. But by 27 January, amid waning media interest, this too had been called off.
The dispatching of police to the campus had made some faculty members queasy, however. The overthrow of Ben Ali had brought an end to police surveillance of ordinary citizens, not least on university campuses.
Many academics are clear that they do not want a return to policemen at the gates, while Qazdaghli argues that the faculty needs to hire its own security personnel to exclude individuals who have no business there.
Niqab-wearing Manouba students recall how, under Ben Ali, women wearing the full face veil were taken off to police stations for interrogation and were obliged to remove the veil. For them, the revolution has brought the freedom to dress in line with their interpretation of Islam.
Other students at Manouba appear bemused by the controversy.
A random sampling of opinion on the campus in mid-January suggested that many, in line with the open spirit of the Tunisian revolution, tend towards tolerance of the niqab, just as there is mutual tolerance between women students wearing the headscarf and those who go bareheaded.
For the time being, there appears to be little likelihood of this dress style becoming a widespread fashion in Tunisian universities.
Local commentators point out that if this dispute is fully resolved, students could usefully mobilise around issues such as underfunded research, poor libraries, inadequate grants and student housing, and any lingering legacy of old regime practices in how academic appointments are made.
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