Ramadan 2006 may well be remembered as the Ramadan of the veil. In remarks widely reported in the Arab press, former U.K. foreign secretary Jack Straw described the veil as “a visible statement of separation and difference”; in the ensuing controversy, British Prime Minister Tony Blair lent his support to Straw and made similar comments. In a related development, a teaching assistant in the U.K., Aisha Azmi, was suspended for refusing to remove her veil when teaching.

However, the most divisive controversy erupted not in Europe, but in Tunisia, where the government launched a campaign to implement “Decree 108,” first issued in 1981, which forbids not only the full veil (niqab) in public places, but also the less restrictive head covering (hijab).

The controversy began with the state-controlled Tunisian media reporting statements by President Zin Al-’Abidin Ben ’Ali and his ministers against the head covering, in which they called it an “imported form of sectarian dress” – a reference to the growing influence of Saudi-style Wahhabism in North Africa.

At the same time, the Islamist opposition – in particular the banned Al-Nadha movement, the main Tunisian Islamist group – reported on a “Ramadan offensive” against women wearing the head covering, saying they were being forced to remove their head coverings and prevented from entering public institutions and universities. These actions sparked a wave of petitions against the government’s activities -from both Islamists and some of the non-Islamist opposition. In addition, prominent sheikhs – among them Egypt Mufti ’Ali Jum’a, Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, and Abu Basir Al-Tartusi – spoke out against the Tunisian government. Al-Tartusi, an influential Salafi authority, even issued a fatwa urging Tunisians to overthrow their government.

The controversy has also led to a diplomatic crisis between Tunisia and Qatar. On October 19, 2006, the London daily Al-Quds Al-’Arabi reported that the Tunisian government had closed its embassy in Doha to protest against a program aired on the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV that had hosted guests critical of the government’s policies on the head covering. [1] The next day, the London daily Al-Hayat reported that the Tunisian ambassador to Qatar had been called home for consultation. [2]

Earlier, in September, 2006, with the start of the new school year, the Tunisian authorities had removed from store shelves the popular hijab-wearing “Fulla” doll, and had confiscated other products bearing pictures of Fulla, saying that the doll was liable to inspire Tunisian girls to adopt the head covering. [3]

The issue has created a dilemma for the liberal reformist opposition and women’s groups. On the one hand, they support secularism and women’s rights; on the other hand, they find it difficult to support an autocratic regime trying to dictate to its citizens how to dress. Caught between the Scylla of autocracy and the Charybdis of Islamism, most groups have taken an intermediate position, expressing reservations about the government’s campaign, but at the same time decrying the Islamists’ selective and opportunistic approach to civil rights. Some parts of the opposition, though, may be forging closer ties with the Islamist Al-Nahdha movement. Such non-Islamist oppositionists as Moncef Marzouki have been harassed by the government for expressing solidarity with the Islamists, and, in turn, the Al-Nahdha movement has taken up their cause. [4]

In a related development, the debate over the veil also erupted in Egypt after the president of Helwan University in Cairo, ’Abd Al-Hay Ebaid, refused to allow veiled women to enter university grounds. While the incident itself was minor in comparison with events in Tunisia – and concerned only the full veil, and not the hijab – it was nevertheless widely discussed in the Egyptian press. Coming against the backdrop of the controversies in England and Tunisia, it reawakened the debate on women’s place in society, Islam and modernity, and the role of Saudi Wahhabism in the erosion of Egypt’s indigenous Islamic practices.

Tunisian Government Statements Against The Head Covering

*President Zin Al-’Abidin Ben ’Ali: We Must Differentiate Between Foreign Sectarian Dress And Authentic Tunisian Clothing

A October 12, 2006 report in the pro-regime daily Al-Shourouq described a meeting between Tunisian President Zin Al-’Abidin Ben ’Ali and his Minister of Religious Affairs, Boubaker Al-Akhzouri:

“This meeting presented an opportunity for the president to reiterate what he had said in his speech on July 25, 2006, that Tunisia remains faithful at all times to its true religion of Islam – the religion of moderation, openness, tolerance, and constructive dialogue – is intent on sanctifying the value of decency and the virtue of modesty, and expresses its customs in its clothing…

“Likewise, the president emphasized that it is imperative… to differentiate between imported sectarian dress [i.e. the veil or head covering] and authentic Tunisian clothing, which is a symbol of [Tunisian] national identity.” [5]

*Religious Affairs Minister Boubaker Al-Akhzouri: “There Is No Uniform Islamic Clothing… The Substitution Of Foreign Dress For Tunisian Clothing Is A Clear And Open Repudiation Of National Identity

The pro-regime Tunisian daily Al-Sabbah daily published an interview with Minister of Religious Affairs Boubaker Al-Akhzouri on October 15, 2006, in which he defended the government’s policy on the veil and explained his views on Islam in Tunisia: “Minister of Religious Affairs Boubaker Al-Akhzouri emphasized… that sectarian dress is a phenomenon that is foreign to our society and is liable to lead to a breach with [Tunisia’s] national identity. He denied any connection between the wearing of sectarian dress and individual rights, since it is contrary to what is accepted as proper in our society. He said that sectarian dress is rejected just as immodest dress is rejected, with the same degree of insistence. He called [on Tunisians to realize] the necessity of imparting to our children a critical mentality, so that they will have the capacity to sift out new ideas coming from abroad, and of encouraging thought and rational reflection in order to protect coming generations from the ’sick excretions’ that we see today…”

When asked about the gain in the popularity of “sectarian dress,” Al-Akhzouri responded: “’No one doubts that Tunisia remains faithful to its true Islamic religion, and any… exaggeration [of the phenomenon is]… shameful contradiction of the truth… Tunisia is unique in its history, its customs, its jurisprudence, its Islamic learning, and its rich religious thought, the basis of which is the application of independent reasoning [ijtihad] and rational reflection, within the bounds of adherence to the unchanging principles…

“’The fixed truth, in religious terms and in historical terms, is that there is no uniform Islamic clothing. As the popular adage has it, “Every country [has] its own coinage,” meaning that every country has its customs in clothing, for men just as for women, just as it has its particular customs in food and everything related to celebrations – and even in name-giving and other matters – and these particularities attest to the cultural wealth of the Islamic world, and of the human world, and attest to the vigor of social practices. All of this is at the heart of national identities.

“’Thus it is worth emphasizing that the substitution of imported dress for Tunisian clothing – which shows decency and cultural identity – is a clear and open repudiation of national identity that will lead to a breach [with that identity]…

“Indeed, imported sectarian [dress] has nothing to do with religion whatsoever. Some people have adopted it as a symbol of [their Islamist] political affiliation. This is an attack on both religion and politics, since it rides religious matters for political-ideological purposes that do not escape anyone’s attention, such that the intention of shari’a in this matter has given way to a sectarian struggle that threatens the equilibrium of society and its unity…

“’Sectarianism is the gateway to accusations of apostasy against other Muslims [takfir]. Accusing other [Muslims] of apostasy is the gateway to internecine warfare [fitna]…

“’Islam is too lofty to be limited to forms and [outward] manifestations that hide it, some of which are as far as can be from Islam…

“’The wearing of sectarian dress has nothing to do with individual liberty, since it is contrary to what is accepted as proper in society, and society has the right to defend its cultural identity. My freedom ends where the freedom of the other begins, and this other is the general good…

“Thus, sectarian dress is rejected as we reject immodest clothing that is considered improper, with the same degree of insistence. Allah distinguishes among Muslims only on the basis of their piety and their good deeds…” [6]

*RCD Party Secretary-General: “If We Agree Today To The Head covering, Tomorrow We Will Accept That Women Will Be Deprived Of Their Right To Work And Their Right To Vote”

The Algerian daily El-Watan reported that Tunisian Foreign Minister ’Abdelwaheb ’Abdallah said that “the veil is a political slogan raised by a tiny group that hides behind religion in order to realize political goals… It is the distinctive sign of a hard-line, insular fringe.” Similar statements were made by Tunisian Interior Minister Rafiq Belhaj Kacem and Secretary-General of the ruling RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally) Party Al-Hadi M’henni. [7] The latter was quoted as saying: “If we agree today to the head covering, tomorrow we will accept that women will be deprived of their right to work and their right to vote, and that they will be prevented from obtaining schooling, and will be only machines for procreation and housework.” [8]

*”One Asks Oneself If One Is In Tunisia… Or In the Streets Of Tehran Or Kabul… This Black Clothing Turns Women Who Have Won All Their Rights… Into Walking Ghosts”

Editorials in the official Tunisian press echoed the government line, emphasizing Tunisia’s unique historical and religious identity and decrying the head covering as a foreign import and a symbol of political Islamism. An editorial in the Tunisian daily Al-Shourouq read:

“It is indisputable that moderation is at the heart of Islam’s message, which has spread to numerous places in the world thanks to the tolerance of its teachings… Islam is also a religion of development and a religion of knowledge… A religion described in this way, and based in this way, cannot merely not drag women back, but pushes them to engage in life and to tackle studies and knowledge, and [encourages] their employment for the benefit of humanity.

“False understanding, or imitation, or [religious] exaggeration among some [parts of the Tunisian public] is reaching the point of wearing manners of dress that have come to us from other countries, countries which have their own customs, traditions, and schools of [religious] thought [or jurisprudence – madhahib]. This has gotten to the point where one sometimes asks oneself if one is in Tunisia – which has always been a beacon of knowledge and modernism and a school of enlightenment and development and modernization – or in the streets of Tehran or Kabul. [This] black clothing turns women who have won all their rights and all elements of citizenship into walking ghosts…

“… The spreading of sectarian dress as a misguided sign of modesty and decency… necessitates a profound and composed dialogue, so that all Tunisian men and women will realize that the signs of modesty and decency are not [to be found] in black sectarian dress that is the product of a social and cultural environment different from ours. Nor [is it to be found] in a henna-dyed beard, nor in insularity… for Islam is a religion of work and life… and it is too great for us to limit it to sectarian dress or particularities of appearance, at the expense of content and substance…” [9]

*Al-Hadath: “In the Arabian Peninsula, The Head Covering Was A Custom of the Zoroastrians, Pagans, and Idol-Worshippers… A Muslim Woman’s True Hijab Is Piety”

One highly controversial anti-hijab editorial, which was unsigned, was published October 18, 2006 by Al-Hadath, a paper belonging to Tunisian journalist ’Abd Al-’Aziz Al-Jaridi; the Jordanian daily Al-Rai reported that Al-Jaridi had received death threats following the editorial’s publication. [10] Following is an excerpt from the article, as posted on the forum of the leftist opposition TUNeZINE website:

“When we were children and would play and be happy, with the innocence of children and their dreams, our grandparents, fathers, and mothers were something we took no notice of, unless they had recourse to a lethal weapon of deterrence – the ’demon’ and the ’demoness’ – to scare us and deter us from making trouble.

“We grew up and came to understand the truth about the ’demon’ and the ’demoness’, but today there are those who have returned to this weapon – the weapon of the ’demoness’ – to stir up alarm and fear. But unlike in the days of our youth, this time it is the veil-wearing ’demoness’ in her abominable black robe, which is not part of our traditions and customs, that stares down at us…

“The public kept silent [about the veil], hoping that it would be a passing trend, and everyone was surprised that the issue became the talk of every Tunisian home, and took on dimensions which obligate civil society… to get moving and make a decision.

“An error only becomes a mistake if you do not correct it… If need be, [we must] use deterrence, and not show tolerance, not yield, and not retreat on this sort of question, which is damaging our essence, our identity, and our [self]-definition as Sunni Muslims of the Maliki school [of jurisprudence]…

“… From the earliest of times, our country never knew the head covering, the veil, or black [clothing]. The historian Herodotus and Thucydides [have already] proved this… Women in Carthage [in present-day Tunisia] were active… and grew their hair long and showed it: This was a sign that they were free. Shearing one’s hair was a sign of slavery…

“As for the illustrious Islamic era, Professor Tawfiq Bin ’Amir says ’There is no trace or indication of the head covering (hijab) in all our past,’ and we have [never] heard nor read of any event, since the dawn of Islam, concerning the head covering, or any mention of the head covering. Rather, the head covering in the Arabian Peninsula was a custom of the Zoroastrians, pagans, and idol-worshippers…

“Islam did not appear just for men, as a means of holding women back, and locking them away and covering them with a veil… Islam… made faith [a matter] of the heart, of virtue, of clean conscience and of feeling. A Muslim woman’s true hijab is piety…

“This wearing of the head covering… is it not close to objectifying women and appreciating them as made [only] to be hidden away and to produce offspring?… Are they not human beings who deserve equality with men, and emancipation, and the independent use of their reason for [their own] advantage?…

“[Muhammad’s first wife] Khadija did not consider herself ’goods’ that Muhammad bought. Neither did Muhammad objectify Khadija and think of her as home furnishing. He did not require her to wear a head covering, and there is no mention of this, because the head covering [is foreign] to Islam and the Muslims. This is the demon with which those who want internal strife are trying to scare us…” [11]

The author also wrote that in summer, the head covering traps heat and becomes infested with vermin, and in the winter it gets wet and thus causes illness. Apparently, it was this statement in particular that sparked controversy.

Islamist Groups: The Government’s Campaign Is “A War Against Allah And His Religion… And An Offense Against Constitutional Liberties And Natural Rights

*The Al-Nahdha Movement: “The ’Ramadan Campaign’ To Eliminate The Head Covering – For Whose Benefit?”

Articles, communiqués, and petitions on the Tunisian government’s campaign against the headcovering dominated the website of the banned Al-Nahdha Islamist opposition movement, as well as other Islamist websites around the world. Al-Nahdha accused the government of conducting a fanatical campaign against Tunisian women who wear the head covering and denied that the head covering had any connection to politics:

“Although the campaigns of the Tunisian government and its attempts to implement the infamous and injurious Decree 108 ’to prevent the wearing of the Islamic head covering in public institutions and in all educational institutions, and even in the street’ have not ceased over the last 25 years, its present campaign, which it introduced during Ramadan this year [2006], has been the broadest and most vehement… The declarations by the state authorities and the ruling party… that preceded it and accompanied it… bespoke hidden malice and impaired logic, and shameful and scandalous ignorance concerning established religious [law] and what has been a subject of consensus among the Islamic nation’s religious scholars and its masses throughout the ages. This is what has triggered, and continues to trigger, waves of negative and angry reactions throughout the Islamic world, and even beyond it.

“This behavior… emphasizes the extent of the difference between two paths on two opposing sides: the path of the Tunisian people and Tunisian society in their forceful and tremendous return to their identity, and the path of the government’s policies and a number of its elites, who are cut off from the values of their society…

“This arbitrary and illegitimate campaign, whose perpetrators did not dare… to sign with their own signatures the orders they issued to their underlings in [public] institutions and educational institutions… to track down and expel women who uphold the banner of piety, [drove] the executive administration toclash with their [own] beliefs and with a wide swathe of public opinion.

“All the while, the government’s mouthpieces repeated its claim…: that the head covering is a political symbol for a political adversary, and therefore it must be thwarted. [The government] described it as sectarian dress… without having troubled itself to request the issuing of a fatwa from the Mufti of the Republic that would relieve Tunisia of the [religious] duty of wearing a head covering…

“… When this return to religion and to adherence to shari’a dress began, in all walks of society and in every region, no one claimed to be behind it or to have any particular place of pride in it, [and thus it was apolitical].

“There remains the perplexing question: for whose benefit is this campaign… and for whose benefit is this extremism and fanatical zeal for the obsolete Decree [108]?… All they have managed to achieve has been to deprive thousands of Tunisian women of the right to schooling and the right to work, and blackened Tunisia’s reputation…

“They frighten people [by saying] that if you agree to this ’sectarian dress’ today, tomorrow you will be forced to accept… that women not leave their houses and not study in colleges and universities! Have they no shame? Is it not they themselves who are doing this to women – today and not tomorrow – when they expel them from studies and work [for wearing a head covering]…

“We, in the Nahdha movement: 1) Hold the ruling government responsible… for what male and female citizens are being subjected to, namely, the attack on their most basic and sacred individual rights – the freedom to choose their own clothing and their degree of religious adherence… while they [i.e. the government] support and encourage manifestations of decadence and [public] nakedness… 2) We call on Tunisia’s religious scholars and sheikhs to express a serious and responsible position before Allah and before their people rejecting this attack on Muslim women’s right to wear a head covering… 3) We demand that Tunisian legal and human [rights] organizations, and likewise the serious national political parties, condemn the oppressive government’s campaign and show solidarity with the religious girls and women in order to safeguard their legitimate right to choose their own clothing; 4) We call on whatever rational people may be left in the government to strive to spare the country any further downslide… 5) We express our total solidarity with the oppressed women of Tunisia and their daughters… You can be sure that you are in the right, and that standing behind you, after Allah… are millions of Muslims and supporters of freedom…

“The Nahdha movement in Tunisia, Ramadan 19, 1427 / October 12, 2006.” [12]

*The World Council For The Support Of Islam In Tunisia: “The Government Has Ignited The Flames Of Civil Strife Against The Chaste Women Of Tunisia”

Numerous other Islamist groups – both Tunisian and foreign – issued statements and petitions that sharply condemned the Tunisian government. For example, a group calling itself “The World Council for the Support of Islam in Tunisia” issued a call to Muslim scholars to condemn the actions of the Tunisian government and its “war” against the head covering. The call was posted on the Islamic Al-Hiwar website:

“… The Islamic religion has once more become a stranger, as the Prophet said [it would], in the country of Tunisia. And what greater strangeness is there than the fact that what [Islam] holds sacrosanct is being desecrated and its prohibitions are being transgressed in an Islamic country, by rulers who claim to be Muslims and claim to be the protectors and guardians of religion? Under this pretext, they are drying up the sources of religious observance and working to wipe out any Islamic manifestation – and especially women’s dressing in accordance with shari’a, so as to force them to display themselves and to disrobe…

“This, then, is the offensive to uproot shari’a clothing that the Minister of Religious Affairs announced, and which is being carried out today – not through enlightened thought, as is claimed – but through violence, compulsion, aggression, punishment, and debarment.

“So Tunisia is now witness to an indiscriminate war that the Tunisian government has launched against shari’a women’s clothing, under the pretext of implementing Decree 108…”

The authors of the call then claim that the Tunisian government has been keeping tabs on the number of women in public service who wear the head covering, and reproduces what it says is an official document reporting violations of the official dress code, including the number of women wearing head coverings. They go on to claim that there is a “security offensive” in the schools and colleges against women wearing head coverings, with the aim of barring them from the classrooms, citing eyewitness accounts to this effect. [13]

In conclusion, the call says: “In light of all of this, the World Council for the Support of Islam in Tunisia condemns these actions by the Tunisian government and considers them aggression against women’s inviolability, a war against Allah and his religion, a violation of physical sanctity and human honor, and also an offense against constitutional liberties and natural rights.

“As the Council knows that you, the religious scholars and preachers, are sincerely zealous… we address to you the following call:

“Please stand together with the chaste women of Tunisia and their supporters and urge them to remain fast in their trial; send a message to the ruler of Tunisia in which you explain shari’a law concerning women’s clothing; express the opinion that the offensive – or rather the war – against shari’a dress is a war against the Islamic religion; warn the ruler of Tunisia and hold him responsible for the disastrous consequences that may stem from this strife; act to issue a collective… fatwa that explains the legal status of anyone who coerces a Muslim woman to remove her veil and reveal what should be hidden!…; try to apprise influential individuals and government officials in your countries who are zealous [in guarding] religious prohibitions of this trial and call on them – as far as this is possible – to intervene to put out the fire of this strife and aid the oppressed chaste women of Tunisia. The Prophet said: ’Whoever protects a believer from a hypocrite who accuses him, Allah sends him an angel who will protect his flesh from hellfire on Judgment Day …’” [14]

Opposition Groups: Between the Regime and the Islamists

*Tunisian Women’s Groups And Liberals: The Islamists’ Appeal To Individual Liberties Is Disingenuous

While the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (known by its French acronym ATFD) is fiercely opposed to the head covering, opinions in the organization on the government’s policies seemed divided. A statement posted on the opposition website in the name of the association claimed with satisfaction that over the last few years the Tunisian regime had adopted most of the arguments put forward by the association in its 2003 declaration titled “For Equality, For Secularism.” The statement was followed by the text of the declaration: [15]

“…We are working to gradually implant the idea that progress cannot come to terms with the exclusion of women. Whether this [exclusion] takes place through physical confinement or by symbolic means, by the force of or indulgence towards reactionary ideas, it can only benefit those who are nostalgic for the past and supports of retrograde civilizational projects…

“We want to express our profound concern at the spread of the head covering in the country. This phenomenon creates a dilemma: [how to] defend the right of women to choose their own attire and their right to education, [and at the same time how to] totally reject this symbol of women’s imprisonment and this retreat from the fight of Tunisian women and men for women’s liberation…

“This attire has nothing that ties it to mothers, grandmothers, and forbears. Rather, it is a rupture with all of the sartorial traditions of the country, and a valorization of a model that is extremely widespread in countries where women continue to be subject to polygamy, repudiation [by their husbands], unilateral divorce, matrimonial guardianship, and many other forms of discrimination.

“This is a style of dress that goes back to time immemorial, when patriarchic practices, sanctioned by the three monotheistic religions and based upon the control of women and the appropriation of their bodies, instilled masculine privilege and supported sexist standards, which perpetuate themselves century after century, especially in the Arab-Muslim world…

“For us, the activists of the ATFD, this style of dress, which seeks to efface women’s diversity, eradicate their differences, and ignore women as sexed individuals, is a reductive symbol, a symbol of regression, and… a symbol of the negation of an indivisible part of every human being: his or her body.

“We believe that the woman is also a body, but we refuse to let her be reduced to an object of temptation from which men must be saved. As subjects who desire and are desired like any human being can be, women must not accept the demonization of their bodies.

“Not being able to confine women anymore in private spaces, the supporters of retrograde currents of thought thus encourage [the wearing of] the head covering. Propaganda broadcast widely on numerous satellite TV stations praise women’s ’choice’ of the veil. They, who are ready to flout women’s rights, arrogantly position themselves on the terrain of human rights, in order to defend the veil and encourage it as ’a symbol of resistance to the invading West.’ They use the degree of women’s adherence to their discourse in order to measure the impact of their totalitarian thinking, and they distill it into moralizing slogans that open the way to all kinds of misogynist excesses…” [16]

*Tunisian Feminist: Against The Veil, But Against The Ban

On the other hand, Sara Dudash, another member of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, wrote a defense of women’s “right to wear the head covering, although it sanctifies women’s inferiority.” Following are excerpts:

“…Decree 108, which prevents women from wearing a head covering in public institutions, is a tyrannical decree that violates the individual freedom of humans, and of women in particular, among which is the right to [choose one’s own] dress, whether a head covering or modern dress. Thus it is the obligation of everyone who defends the values of freedom and human rights, and in particular those who defend the rights of women – women who once again find themselves oppressed and their basic rights being denied… to oppose this offensive.

“In reality, the government’s tyrannical policy is leading to results that are the opposite [of what it intends]; instead of diminishing the phenomenon [of the head covering], it is leading to its expansion…

“Just as numerous democratic and secular forces support women’s right to wear the head covering, the Islamists need to also express clearly and publicly [their support for] women’s right to wear whatever they choose…

“Together with [my] principled support for women’s rights to wear a head covering or any other clothing she chooses for herself… it is necessary to point out that the head covering… is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, sanctification of women’s inferiority, a diminishing of their worth, and a blow to those calling for women’s equality with men… Those who call for women to wear the head covering propose this as part of a project for returning women to their homes and preventing them from going out into society, operating according to [their] traditional phased plan…” [17]

Dr. Salwa Bin Yousuf Al-Sharafi, in the lead article in the new online bilingual weekly Le Maghreb, which is affiliated with the liberal transnational Maghreb Alliance for Democracy, criticized the Islamists’ use of the rhetoric of human rights. She did not unequivocally support any side in the debate, but denounced all those who use the issue to further their own agendas: “For some people, individual freedoms go only as far as the freedom [to choose one’s own] dress, and do not extend to encompass, for instance, freedom of belief, which we have never heard the defenders of the head covering take up with this kind of voracity and urgency. To this day, the Islamists have not clearly elaborated their notion of freedom of belief, and have merely inserted it in the category of the right to exercise [Islamic] religious rites. As for the issue of apostasy and the traditional law of apostasy, which is derived from the Prophetic tradition ’Whoever apostatizes from his religion, kill him’… this issue has remained in the category of inviolable prohibition [and is not regarded in the context of freedom of belief]… [18]

*The Democratic Progressive Party: The Government’s Actions Are “Humiliation, Harassment, And Religious Oppression

Among those who chose to side with the Islamists and direct their criticism exclusively at the government was the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which issued a statement condemning the Tunisian government’s actions against the Islamic head covering, saying that Tunisian women who wear the head covering are subject to “humiliation [and] harassment, are prevented from pursuing their studies in colleges and universities, and are excluded from employment in public institutions,” and that this was “a form of religious oppression that targets a group of citizens because of their religious beliefs.” [19]

The Tunisian Democratic Alliance (headquartered in France) also published a communiqué, dated October 16, 2006, condemning the government’s actions: “…We denounce this new offensive against Islam and against the right of the population to respect its traditions. In fact, we have learned that in many regions of the [Tunisian] Republic a police offensive was launched against local populations in order to prevent them from wearing their traditional costume, under the pretext of its being a veil… This is a scandalous offensive to the moral integrity of these populations… This aggression against the Tunisian population must not remain unanswered. We must all – people from every persuasion – unite to put an end to this… We call for a general mobilization against this project of effacing of our Arab and Muslim identity, which the Tunisian regime is carrying out in order to please the Americans in their offensive against Islam.” [20]

The Tunisian General Students Union, in an October 11, 2006 meeting, stated its support for “female students wearing the head covering… despite [our] ideological disagreement with them.” A statement from the Kairouan branch of the Tunisian Human Rights League, after expressing its concern over the government’s actions, said: “Our branch [of the League], which considers these excesses to be a violation of female citizens’ individual rights – as freedom of dress is included in the country’s constitution and in international conventions – calls on the government to forego this security method and to stop this offensive at once, and to follow the method of dialogue with the [various] components of civil society…” [21]

*Secular Oppositionist Dr. Moncef Marzouki: “Our Only Choice Is Between This Civil Resistance And Armed Struggle

On October 19, 2006, Dr. Moncef Marzouki, the honorary president of the Tunisian Human Rights League whose appearance on an Al-Jazeera talk show angered the Tunisian government and provoked a diplomatic crisis with Qatar, published an article in the French daily Liberation that was fiercely critical of the regime: “The Tunisian dictator personally took the lead on October 11 by excoriating the wearing of the veil in the country. The hunting of veiled women was stepped up in workplaces, the university, and even in the streets… This phenomenon contradicts his pretension to having eliminated Islamism and having dried up its sources. It ridicules his entire discourse on the liberation of women… At a time when many comment on a return to the irrational, the rise of obscurantism, and the new alienation of women, he himself understood perfectly what it was all about. The wearing of the veil, which is increasingly widespread, is a political protest, which is all the more subversive for its being feminine, peaceful, widespread – and, especially, permanent…

“The secular and democratic resistance, which is less spectacular, causes difficulties [for Ben ’Ali], especially on the international level. It has exposed to the world a regime that wanted to have its cake and eat it too, intending to impose a corrupt and brutal dictatorship…

“It is clear today… that it is the permanent protest [i.e. the head covering] that most worries the dictator. So I proposed on Al-Jazeera that we, the… secularists, join in the permanent protest, not just in Tunisia, but in all other Arab countries in the same position – for example, by wearing a black armband on our right arm…

“Like all other Arabs faced with this same type of detestable and un-reformable regime, our only choice is between this civil resistance and armed struggle. This latter is today a great temptation for the youth, especially after Hizbullah’s performance this summer. More and more young Tunisians… leave for Iraq and never come back. But nothing would help the dictator’s affairs more than a wave of terrorist attacks, since the struggle against terrorism is the trump card of Arab regimes, which everyone admits had a large part in the genesis, appearance, and continuation of the phenomenon.

“It is our responsibility – we intellectuals, human rights activists, Tunisian and Arab politicians – men and women – to propose to these youth… a resistance that is peaceful, but that can nevertheless succeed in the total elimination of this refuse of history that are the Arab dictatorships…” [22]

Several days later, Marzouki issued the following communiqué: “On October 14, I appeared on Al-Jazeera to discuss the complete deadlock, in which Tunisia has been for years under the ruthless grip of an ever-worsening police state. I said that the only possible answer for a population tired of repression and corruption was to begin a civil resistance movement, using all peaceful means available to demand its rights and its freedom.

“I also announced that I would return to my country on October 21 to be with my fellow Tunisians in their struggle for democracy.

“Yesterday the Tunisian authorities delivered to my (empty) home in Sousse, and to my brother, a subpoena to appear before a judge on October 21, to face a grotesque accusation: incitement to violence.

“It is clear that this subpoena (the latest of many) seeks to punish me for the position I have taken, and especially to intimidate me so that I will return home.

“After much thought and consulting with friends, I have decided to return to Tunisia on October 21 as planned, to take all risks, to continue my call to Tunisians to refuse to submit to a regime that has deprived them of their liberties and their fundamental rights.” [23]

Marzouki did indeed return to Tunisia on October 21. To date, he has not been arrested. [24]

Muslim Religious Scholars Condemn Tunisian Government

Several prominent religious scholars condemned the Tunisian government, saying that the head covering was an immutable religious obligation. Among them were Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, Salafi Sheikh Abu Basir Al-Tartusi, [25] and Egyptian Mufti ’Ali Juma’.

*Al-Qaradhawi: “This Is The Worst Kind Of Strife And Rebellion Against Allah’s Religion

During his weekly show on Al-Jazeera, Al-Shari’a w’Al-Hayat, Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi said in response to a caller’s question: “The verse concerning the head covering is an established Koranic verse that is legally binding… It is not permitted in any Muslim country for Muslim women to be forbidden from wearing the head covering. The least that can be asked of a Muslim country that recognizes Islam as its religion… is that it leave women free to choose whatever they want – one chooses the miniskirt, and another chooses an even shorter skirt, and another… chooses the head covering, and another chooses the veil… This is a matter of individual freedom. So long as we are giving women the freedom to wear what they want, short or long… why should we interfere when it comes to religious women?…

“I even objected to France[’s prohibition of the head covering in schools], and I told them that this was incompatible with two human freedoms included in the [International] Declaration of Human Rights – freedom of the individual and freedom of religion… For more than 13 centuries, women did not expose their heads in [Muslim countries], until colonialism came to Muslim lands, and they started to imitate the foreigners…”

When the show’s host said: “Sheikh [Qaradhawi], perhaps the miniskirt will become Islamic dress…,” Qaradhawi answered: “It is established in religion that this, unfortunately, is among the things in which the good will become evil and the evil good…

“This is the worst kind of strife [fitna] and rebellion against Allah’s religion – [namely,] that we… should forbid a Muslim woman, who is modest and wants to do God’s will [from covering her hair]… Muslim scholars around the world must condemn this…” [26]

*Syrian Salafi Sheikh Abu Basir Al-Tartusi: “You Should All Rebel… Against This Infidel And Apostate Tyrant… And His Regime

Syrian Sheikh Abu Basir Al-Tartusi, who is a prominent authority for the salafi-jihadi movement, posted a fatwa on his website calling on Muslims to overthrow the regime in Tunisia:

“… The tyrant of Tunisia [i.e. President Ben ’Ali]… has not left untread any area where Islam and Muslims may be fought, and he has not left any kind of heresy that he has not done and also called on others to do. One of the latest of these things was what his infidel, tyrant, base and evil-doing soul invented, when he declared with his own mouth, and through his brazen and permissive media, which parrots every false word that the tyrant vomits into it… ’The women’s head covering [hijab] is to be rejected, as it is an import and [a source of] discord and sectarian dress, and is a danger to the essence of Tunisian society’!

“This declaration went beyond a mere declaration and statement of their rejection of the obligation of the head covering, [and they went on] to wage war on the head covering and on virtue – and this has been going on for decades – through the force of [their] infidel law and with the whips of the oppressing executioner. They forbade the head covering in every manifestation of official life… and even in the streets… The honor of any woman seen in the street with a hijab is considered fair game, and she is subjected to the attack of the tyrant’s mad dogs…

“The sight of the head covering and women wearing it offends the sensibilities of the atheists, the heretics, the sinful, and the libertines… because it reminds them of the concepts of purity, modesty, virtue, proper behavior, decency, and faith. They want these concepts to be buried alive and entirely wiped out…

“Oh tyrant [i.e. Ben ’Ali]: Know that Islam cannot be fought, and the head covering is a part of Islam… for [it] is part of the natural religion with which Allah endowed creation [i.e. Islam]…

“Oh tyrant: Before you, how many tyrants greater than you… fought Islam and the Muslims, and fought the hijab… Where are they now?

“Oh tyrant: Other tyrants – including your supporters and masters in the West – are fighting the hijab and the chaste women from among the believers who wear it, but none with your impudence and blatancy and malice…

“If there is something that astounds me, it is the silence of the Islamic nation, its religious scholars, and its preachers… When someone not from among us [i.e. a non-Muslim], and not from our people and who does not [speak] our language, slanders and mocks Islam, everyone reacts and denounces this… but if the slander, aggression, and rejection of belief come… from among the Arab tyrants, everyone (other than those on whom Allah has had mercy) remains silent…

“As for you, our people in Tunisia, may Allah be with you, and may He aid you and drive away your worry and your grief and your great affliction… and relieve you and your country of heresy and tyranny and the oppression of the tyrant, his entourage, and his sorcerers. You should know that this tyrant… has no authority over you, and [therefore] you should neither listen to him nor obey him… [Instead] you should all… rebel against this infidel and apostate tyrant and… [against] his regime…” [27]

*Egyptian Mufti ’Ali Jum’a: The Tunisian Government Has “Violated Allah’s Word

The Yemenite news website quoted Egyptian Mufti ’Ali Jum’a, who is the second highest-ranking religious authority in the country, as saying: “Any Arab or Islamic state that prohibits the wearing of the head covering has, in this, violated Allah’s word and that of His Messenger [Muhammad], ventured against one of Allah’s commandments, and suspended a commandment that no one, ruler or ruled, whoever he may be, can suspend, under any circumstance.” [28]

With regard to the veil that leaves only the eyes uncovered (the niqab), the Qatari daily Al-Raya quoted Jum’a as saying: “Without relating [specifically] to what raised the question… [the veil is the subject of] differences of opinion in jurisprudence that must be respected. The Shafi’i school of jurisprudence is for the veil, whereas the Maliki school [which is prevalent in North Africa] says the complete opposite, and says that it is an unorthodox innovation (bid’a) and that it should not be worn unless this was the local custom, or unless the woman in question is exceedingly beautiful…” The Mufti said that such questions should be discussed calmly and respectfully, and then concluded by saying that in his view the niqab was not an obligation. [29] This latter question was likely prompted by local events in Egypt.

The Veil in Egypt

The controversies in Tunisia and Britain intensified the debate sparked by Egypt’s own veil incident, which emerged when the president of Helwan University in Cairo, ’Abd Al-Hay Ebaid, decided to prevent women wearing the veil (niqab) from entering university grounds. [30] The incident itself was more minor in scope than events in Tunisia, especially as it concerned only the full veil. For instance, while the Muslim Brotherhood attacked Ebaid’s decision, [31] Dr. Muhammad ’Abdallah Al-Khatib, the “Mufti” of the Brotherhood, expressed the same opinion as that of the Egyptian mufti – namely, that wearing the veil is virtuous, but is not obligatory, and only the head covering (hijab) is a religious obligation – and for this reason, and despite his criticism of the university administration, he counseled the students to remove the veil, so as not to prejudice their futures. [32] Later, though, Egyptian Culture Minister Farouq Hosni managed to unite against himself not just the Muslim Brotherhood, but also scholars from Al-Azhar, when he described the hijab as “a call to reaction and backwardness.” [33]

While these incidents were on a more minor scale than those in Tunisia, they came against the backdrop both of the international context of the veil debate and the ongoing Kulturkampf in Egypt between modernism and radical Islamism. Thus, they were magnified and provoked a great deal of reaction in the media. The Egyptian media often echoed its Tunisian counterpart by taking up two themes: the marked rise in the popularity of the veil, and the role of Gulf influence in eroding indigenous forms of religion and culture.

*Roz Al-Yousef: “Extremism Is Quietly Abducting The Country While We Sleep

In the opening article in the October 28, 2006 edition of the weekly Roz Al-Yousef, ’Abdallah Kemal wrote an impassioned plea to the modernist elite to combat the spread of Islamism in Egypt:

“Extremism is quietly abducting the country while we sleep. I mean by this: 1) The marked rise in the proportion of women, in wide sectors [of the public], who wear the veil [niqab]; 2) The incessant increase in…[the phenomenon of] dressing prepubescent girls in the head covering [hijab], especially in rural areas…

“We are facing a generational catastrophe. Given that women are the pillar of the institution of the family, what can we expect from veiled mothers other than generations of the most extreme of extremists? We are facing a true political problem, for what can one want of veiled families when they make their political decisions? Will these families choose between various options, or will they flow directly into the political receptacle of extremism?

“All of this requires us to sound the warning bells, especially since extremism is not – in light of the retreat of the forces of enlightenment… – settling merely for hoisting [its] banners above women’s heads, but is continuing, with unparalleled success, to hoist its flags above a new area of conquest, namely, the heads of little girls…

“I criticize [Egyptian liberals]: How can they be in a kind of strange, serene languor, while this cancer completes its infiltration of the edifice of [people’s] minds and reinforces its control over the change in the character of the state, even before it has gained power – though this is where it is headed…

“The state of silence that the majority of the national newspapers have maintained, and their… collective languor in refraining from fighting this reactionary [movement], provide a completely fitting environment for the growth of non-modern tendencies, and is leading to the undoing of the features of the civil state, not to speak of the secular state…

“And even worse is what many of the civil political forces are doing. They are playing with fire and live coals, imagining that they are applying pressure on the regime… when they make open or secret alliances [with the Islamists], and they do not understand that they are selling their souls…” [34]

Other Egyptian authors echoed the voices from Tunisia that warned of the erosion of traditional local culture under a wave of extremism issuing from the Arabian Peninsula. In the Egyptian government daily Al-Gumhuriya, Al-Sayyed ’Abd Al-Ra’uf wrote: “A flood of Bedouin desert ideology and religious legal thought is invading Egypt today, through tapes and books distributed by the millions – for free, or for the lowest of prices – and through preachers – or rather, propagandists… This Bedouin ideology diverts people from every element of enlightenment:… knowledge, learning, technology, respect for the other… Lofty Islam is limited to the robe… and the man’s flowing beard and the woman’s veil. Women are turned into merely a sexual entity, whose only role is to sate men’s base desires…

“Those who hold to this ideology… have descended on this country [i.e. Egypt] like the night. Their thinking has raised a generation of extremist youth, that has entered into bloody struggles with its societies and its governments in the Gulf [states]. These governments were left with no choice but to strike with steel and fire… For those who repented, they opened the gates of repentance. But for those who persisted in their sin, they opened the gloom of their prisons. Some of them had no option but to look for new pastures for their thinking, and they thought Egypt the most appropriate place to spread their oppressive and ignorant [jahiliya] thinking…” [35]

*Egyptian Poet: “The Veil Symbolizes Ancient Society, With All Its Discrimination, Violence, And Arbitrariness”

In an article in the government daily Al-Ahram, Egyptian poet and intellectual Ahmad ’Abd Al-Mu’ti Hijazi, traced the history of the veil from its origins in pre-Islamic desert culture to a central fact in relations between Muslims and the West: “All of a sudden, the veil has been transformed, from a face covering worn by women is some closed Islamic environments to an issue concerning many. Ever since the closed environments left their isolation and made contact with open environments, the veil has gone beyond its original function and has taken on a new significance that has divided the world…

“The woman in Bedouin society is like land in peasant society. Bedouin customs make women chattel owned by the man, who imposes his rule and his will on her… The veil then symbolizes ancient society, with all of its discrimination, violence, and arbitrariness. The man is a full human, and the woman half a human; the man owns, and the woman is owned; the man is unblemished, and the woman is wholly defective…

“Our female forbears in Pharaonic times used to go unveiled, without a hijab and without a niqab – until we lost our national independence and… [other] nations [i.e. the Arab conquerors] imposed the head covering and the veil on us. [This was] in order to reinforce the principle of discrimination that ruled all relations – those between men and women, those between foreign invaders and natives, and those between the arbitrary ruler and the subdued ruled.

“The Egyptian woman was liberated from the head covering and the veil on the day that the Egyptian nation was liberated, in the 1919 revolution, from the Turkish invaders and the English imperialists, and recovered its lost independence. But our defeat in the 1967 war set the path for wholesale apostasy [from national liberalism], and the head covering and the veil were among its manifestations.

“It should come as no surprise that Gulf, Iranian, and Afghan styles of dress have spread through some parts of Egypt in the last few decades. Their spread is a clear expression of the fact that dress is tied up with the political and cultural situation and of the retreat of feelings of identification with Egypt…” [36]

Source:MEMRI, November 23, 2006.

*Daniel Lav is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

[1] Al-Quds Al-’Arabi (London), October 19, 2006.

[2] Al-Hayat (London), October 20, 2006. In parallel, the Tunisian pro-regime daily Al-Shourouq published an attack on Al-Jazeera on October 21, 2006, accusing it of bias. The article was posted at The Islamic-leaning Algerian daily El-Shourouq also reported that the independent Tunisian Hannibal satellite TV channel was the victim of a smear campaign conducted by the Tunisian state media, and was even threatened with closure, after having given favorable coverage to veiled women in Tunisia.El-Shourouq (Algeria), October 15, 2006.

[3] Al-’Arabiya (London), September 21, 2006.

[4] See Sheikh Rashed Al-Ghanoushi’s statement in the name of Al-Nahdha;, October 21, 2006.

[5] Al-Shourouq (Tunisia), October 12, 2006; identical report in Al-Sabbah (Tunisia), October 12, 2006.

[6] Al-Sabbah (Tunisia), October 15, 2006.

[7] El-Watan (Algeria), October 15, 2006.


[9] Al-Shourouq (Tunisia), October 13, 2006.

[10] Al-Rai (Jordan), October 19, 2006.


[12] The weekly Le Maghreb noted that the head of Al-Nahdha, Rashed Al-Ghanoushi, did not sign the document. Le Maghreb saw this as a sign that his leadership is being contested, and said that he has been firmly requested not to carry out his functions as head of Al-Nahdha until the movement’s next assembly.

[13] The pro-regime press also published interviews with female students wearing the head covering, in which they insist they are doing so out of personal conviction, and are opposed to women who wear the veil (niqab) or other more restrictive forms of clothing as political statement. See Le Temps (Tunisia), October 17, 2006.


[15] The end of the message is signed by Hela Abdeljaoued, the president of the association, but it is not clear whether it was she who wrote the message, or whether the signature is part of the 2003 document.

[16] , October 17, 2006.



[19] , October 10, 2006.

[20], October 16, 2006. The homepage of this site,, runs a ticker that says that it is impossible to access the site inside Tunisia.

[21] A banner on the site says that it has been blocked in Tunisia since October 2.


[23] , October 20, 2006.

[24] October 22, 2006.

[25] For more on Sheikh Abu Basir Al-Tartusi, see MEMRI Special Report No. 40, “Expatriate Syrian Salafi Sheikh Comes out Against Suicide Attacks,” February 10, 2006:


[27], October 21, 2006.

[28], October 22, 2006.

[29] Al-Raya (Qatar), October 23, 2006.

[30], October 20, 2006.

[31] ; October 18, 2006.

[32] Al-Gumhuriya (Egypt), October 13, 2006.

[33] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 17, 2006.

[34] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), October 28, 2006.

[35] Al-Gumhuriya (Egypt), October 13, 2006.

[36] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 25, 2006.