This week, a few hundred students and teachers at Manouba University in Tunisia demonstrated against the niqab, or veil, which is used by some ultra-conservative women to cover their faces. It has been outlawed in Tunisian schools and government offices for decades, ever since it was described by the modern republic’s secular founder Habib Bourguiba as “that odious rag.” One sign at the demonstration said “Science before the niqab.” Another said “no to shackles, no to niqab, knowledge is free.” The protest was a counter-demonstration against an Islamist sit-in at the humanities department.
I’ve seen a few women in Tunisian cities wearing niqabs, but not very many. That kind of headgear is far more common in the Persian Gulf nations than in North Africa. While having coffee at an outdoor café in downtown Tunis, the capital, a group of women with their faces covered walked past. All the locals sitting at tables near mine eyed the women as though they had been beamed in from another planet. I assumed these ladies weren’t even Tunisians, but Saudis. They could hardly have drawn more attention to themselves had they dressed like that in a small town in Bolivia.
I can certainly understand why conservative Muslims chafe against the ban on the headscarf and the veil. For them it’s a question of religious freedom. They don’t feel like they’re infringing upon anyone’s rights by dressing that way, but the state is infringing on their rights by not allowing it.
There’s a catch, though. Some men force women in their households to cover their faces against their will. For these women, the ban is a liberation.
The American way is to allow the veil. In his much-lauded Cairo speech, President Barack Obama said it should be the Arab way, too. He said so because in some Arab countries it isn’t the way. But what about the right of women to not dress conservatively in Iran and Saudi Arabia where governments force them? And what about the rights of women to not dress conservatively in Tunisia where family members might force them?
There is no quick and easy solution that guarantees rights and freedom for all. The Muslim world has almost no chance of resolving this issue during our lifetimes, but at least Tunisians are fighting about it–for now anyway–without shooting each other.