As an agnostic raised just east of Berkeley, California, America’s liberal nerve center, it was always difficult for me to view the niqab — an Islamic garment covering all but the eyes — as anything other than an article of oppression. An interpretation of religion that prescribes the visual erasure of women from the public sphere is inimical to my basic beliefs, and one of the last things I would associate with freedom of expression. But living in Tunis has made me reconsider my perspective.
When the Islamist Ennahda Party emerged the clear victor in Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly elections last October, many began to speculate as to the future of women’s rights in what some consider the most progressive Arab country since the introduction of former President Habib Bourguiba’s 1956 Personal Status Code. But in speaking with people on the ground, it is apparent that while secular in governance, pre-revolution Tunisia was starkly illiberal – specifically in terms of religious freedom. Now, this reality poses a significant challenge for the development of democracy.
The social dynamic under the Ben Ali regime mandated outward adherence to select Western social values at the expense of individual choice. For decades, the state tightly regulated the observance of religion in Tunisia on the individual and institutional level. The government kept Imams on message by restricting sermons to material passed down from the government-appointed Grand Mufti. Both the niqab and more mainstream hijab were banned for women, as were beards or qamis (a traditional knee-length shirt) for men. Branded articles of imported, “sectarian dress, “ their display constituted an invitation for police harassment, detention and questioning.
A local university student told me about her teenage brother, who attended mosque regularly and briefly experimented with facial hair under the old regime: “The police only left us alone after my mother placed a large picture of Ben Ali on our front door and made my brother agree to cut down his number of weekly visits to the mosque,” she said. “There was no tolerance for anyone who wished to make Islam the central aspect in their life.”
Now, over the past three months, a battle has been raging between administrators and a small group of students at nearby Manouba University over the right of female students to wear the niqab, which, despite its undefined legal status, has provoked firm opposition from campus administrators. Far from an indication that the new government will impose the veil upon women at large, this controversy represents a grassroots struggle for a basic human right – the freedom of religion.
Since the Revolution, one of the most visible changes on the streets of Tunis has been the upswing in traditional forms of Islamic dress, as some citizens seek to reclaim what was previously denied to them. But just as the keffiyeh has become more of an article of résistance fashion than a specific symbol of the Palestinian fight for statehood, some suggest that the niqab holds more political than religious meaning in post-revolution Tunisia. Interviewed in a recent Maghrebia article, one shopkeeper commented that many customers were now empowered to purchase niqabs, “…because there is an awareness in society that religiosity [itself]…is a personal freedom.”
In the Western experience, secularism – freedom from government-supported social control by religious institutions – is integral to our understanding of liberalism. But in Tunisia, the pendulum had swung too far, restricting basic liberties in the name of secularism. Freedom to worship according to individual preference represents an equal advance of liberalism, regardless of the increasingly religious composition of the government.
The fight for tolerance of religious and social pluralism is only in its beginning stages here, and this is a challenge for the development of democracy. Observers should not be convinced by opponents of pluralism that women demonstrating for the right to wear the niqab represent a step backward for Tunisia. On the contrary, akin to the recent launch of the country’s first gay lifestyle magazine, this is part of a broader task of national self-determination crucial to the democratic transition process.
Alysha Bedig is a David L. Boren Fellow studying Arabic and researching how the treatment of the old regime is impacting democratic transition in Tunisia. She will graduate from Fletcher in December 2012 with a MALD in International Security Studies and Political Development. Previously, she worked as a strategic communications consultant to foreign governments in Washington, DC, and as a Teaching Assistant in Tufts’ Department of Political Science. She holds a BA in Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies from Brandeis University.