By Houda Trabelsi
After years of restrictive policies against religious attire, Tunisia might soon rescind its long-standing ban on the hijab in public institutions.
The veil is a personal matter and part of women’s individual freedom, Religious Affairs Minister Laroussi Mizouri announced on February 12th in the first official statement regarding the issue.
Under Tunisian law, the veil is considered “sectarian dress” rather than a religious duty. The country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, outlawed the hijab in public places, and his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, vowed to preserve the Personal Status Code.
“Our manager imposed a complete ban on wearing the veil at work,” complained Sonia Labadh, who works in the public sector. “Therefore, I had to take it off at the door of the department and put it back on when I leave; something that caused me much embarrassment.”
“I’ve always hated these behaviours from the former regime,” she added. “How could they prevent anyone from wearing what they like and from observing their religious duties in a country that is supposed to be Muslim?”
Public discontent with former policies culminated in 2003, when protesters demanded that the government intervene to stop insults against veiled women, and a group of lawyers and rights activists signed a petition condemning the authorities.
“I got sick with the hit-and-run game with the administration and security in university, who were preventing us from wearing the veil,” Sourour Mhadhbi, 22, said. “I often felt oppressed and humiliated, and the matter would reach the worst point when I heard obscene words.”
The situation has changed since the January 14th revolution. Tunisian cities have witnessed a strong and noticeable return of the veil.
“I feel as if I was born anew; I no longer have to take the veil off in the university or wear a hat on it to deceive them,” Mhadhbi said.
“The restoration of freedom to wear the veil may curb a little bit the scenes of nudity that have swept across Tunisia in recent years,” Mondher Ayari told Magharebia.
Some, however, fear a backlash from conservatives. Secondary school teacher Arbia Ezine hoped that women would not be required “to wear the veil, especially with the entry of Islamist parties to the field after years-long absence”.
“I respect the freedom of dress and personal belief, but I reject the imposition of wearing or removal of veil because this is a stark assault on individual freedoms,” she said.
Ghalya ben Mohamed, a university student, told Magharebia, “I personally don’t recommend wearing the veil, but I respect the personal freedom of those who decide to wear it,” she said, adding that “those who don’t wear the veil must also be respected”.
She called for a “clear legal provision” to prevent Islamists from imposing the garment.
Legislative changes, however, don’t always lead to changes in behaviour, according to sociology professor Ali Hammi. “The government’s permission of veils may not necessarily be followed by a wave of an increasing number of women wearing it. The veil has always been there, though banned. Banned things are always desired.”
There are many women who wear the veil as “a form of social expression or fashion and not always as an expression of religious affiliations or a specific approach”, according to Hammi.