Tunisian Activists Warn About Women’s Rights Backslide


By Houda Trabelsi

The Islamist electoral triumph may have emboldened Salafists to try to impose their mores on Tunisia’s public life, some observers note.

The number of attacks on individual freedoms has multiplied, raising fears among some that conservative movements would unravel women’s gains.

Union activist Salah Kachkar wrote on a Facebook page that in the northwestern part of the country, an administrative official ordered girls to wear a veil, threatening dismissal if they refused to comply.

“Dictatorship is returning in a new form,” wrote Kachkar, who is also the former general-secretary of a Tabarka labour union.”Are these practices of the former era?”

“The main target of these assaults is our freedoms, and more precisely the freedom of our female colleagues,” Hassin Bou Jarra, Secretary-General of the General Union of University Professors, said in a statement.

He reported the case of a female employee harassed on a campus in Manouba in late October for wearing “indecent” clothes. At the University of Sharia and Religious Principles, students boycotted lectures by unveiled professors, Bou Jarra said.

“The aim of this is to impose a status quo and form a new pattern of public life that they believe is in conformity with their concepts of Islam, while it in fact conforms only to the more extreme and exaggerated interpretations and experiences,” he added.

The activist added that such “attacks on individual and public freedoms” targeted “female colleagues’ physical and moral sanctity”.

“We call for enforcing the law and for referring all those who are proven to have been engaged in such practices to disciplinary boards, and even to the judiciary if necessary,” Bou Jarra said. “We won’t stand idly by and we won’t keep silent about such a danger which targets our individual and public freedoms and which may threaten academic freedoms in the future.”

Some citizens noticed what they described as unwelcome changes in their academic and other environments.

“The number of Salafists has increased at our university,” student Samira Ayadi said. “We now see strange things unknown to our society, and they even went as far as demanding to divide the university restaurant into one for males and another one for females to prevent blending.”

She added that the future of Tunisian universities was “in danger from those extremists who have nothing to do with the manners of good Muslims”.

“Those people are installing themselves as custodians of society in the name of religion, and they think that Ennahda’s win will enable them to do whatever they want,” Mejda El Fersi told Magharebia. “This is just the beginning, and I’m really worried about the future.”

For his part, Karim Hannachi said that those were isolated incidents that do not “reflect the ideological trends in Ennahda as some people claim”.

“The Ennahda Movement came to protect individual freedoms, including freedom of dress,” argued Adel Hussain. “As soon as Ennahda takes office in Tunisia, it will confront all of the harassments that Tunisians citizens, especially women whether they are veiled or not, are subjected to. This is because Ennahda believes that wearing the veil or not is a personal issue related to women’s beliefs.”

For his part, Ami Lourimi, a member of the executive bureau of Ennahda, told Magharebia that the Islamist party was “concerned with the respect of law implementation and supported public and individual freedoms”, which should be protected in the constitution.

“Any act affecting these freedoms is rejected whoever is doing them,” he said. “We warn against committing such acts because they are attributed to us as a political party with the aim of using them politically against Ennahda Movement or disrupting the formation of government and the start of its work.”

Meanwhile, a number of women staged a protest late October to press for the protection of their rights and remind the next government not to undo their gains.


The Magharebia web site is sponsored by the United States Africa Command, the military command responsible for supporting and enhancing US efforts to promote stability, co-operation and prosperity in the region.

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