The Liberating Shrouds of Tunisia

Religious coercion threatens Tunisian women

A number of Tunisian women feel forced to adopt religious practices in attire and behaviour. Experts, however, question the legality and Islamic authenticity of the phenomena.

By Jamel Arfaoui for Magharebia in Tunis – 07/01/11 (thanks to the RoP)

  • Fitzgerald: Tunisia and the Monitoring of Islam: Tunisian police are stopping women on the streets and asking them to take off their headscarves and to sign a pledge that they will not wear a scarf again. A 1981 Tunisian law prohibits Islamic attire in schools or government offices.

[Jamel Arfaoui] “The case with the veil in Tunisia is a matter of fashion and is the result of influence from certain groups; it’s the herd mentality,” writer Rach Tounsi says.

Rima, a student, breathed a sigh of relief when her mother allowed her to remove the hijab.

“I’ve been waiting for this day for six months,” she says, adding that the experience felt like “long decades”. “My mother forced me to abandon what she considered to be indecent clothes when I returned home at a late hour after attending a friend’s birthday party.”

Like many other Tunisian girls and married women, she was made to obey her family, while facing alienation at school.

“I’ve lived through difficult times at my college. I may be wrong about it, but I felt that my male and female colleagues’ looks were tearing me apart. This made me avoid going to the college for several days, and I could have failed that year if it hadn’t been for the assistance of a female colleague,” she adds.

Even though freedom of conscience is enshrined in Article 5 of the Tunisian constitution, which “protects the free exercise of beliefs with reservation that they do not disturb the public order”, a growing number of women experience coercion in religious practices.

Rabiaa, in her 30s, is one of them. She admits to wearing Islamic garments out of fear of her husband’s violence.

“He threatened to divorce me and to prevent me from seeing my kids if I insisted on my rejection of the veil and cloak,” she tells Magharebia.

“When he came to propose to me four years ago, he didn’t show any objections to my lifestyle or the clothes that I was wearing. He even said he was not praying. However, one year after marriage, he changed abruptly and changed his clothes. Even the topics he was talking about at home differed, and he prevented me from watching certain TV channels. He eventually forced me to follow his new lifestyle in terms of clothes and even the way of eating,” she says.

Rabiaa is not alone: she confesses to having met several women like her who complained about “their husbands’ change, and how they [women] started to suffer in silence as a result”.

[Reuters/Rafael Marchante] Despite the secularisation efforts in Tunisia, the tide is turning toward religious conservatism.

A friend of hers was abused for objecting to her husband forcing their 10-year old daughter to wear the hijab.

Hadia faced a similar situation. Even though she received education at a prestigious university, she was forced to quit her job as a doctor after marriage and stay at one of her husband’s private farms.

“He told me that I could leave the house only with him or the driver. I reluctantly accepted. However, I eventually had to flee my matrimonial residence after life became impossible with him, especially as he turned his farm into a meeting place for people like him who are religiously intolerant,” she says.

Not only women, however, are witnessing the changes. Khalid Zeytouni says that he was surprised to see one day his wife covered in black, with “a thick veil” on her head.

“I asked her to remove these strange clothes that would attract the eyes of intruders at work and among her neighbours,” he says. “She knows that I’m a believer and that I don’t do anything that would displease God. However, she insisted on her position and told me that she would be an infidel if she removed her veil, saying that the verse was clear.”

Zeytouni even thought of divorcing his wife and left his home.

“However, I returned one month later and told her that I’ve come back only because of my children, that she has to forget forever about going out with me to any public place, and that she can’t impose her lifestyle on us at home,” he says.

“We’ve agreed on these things, and here we are until now, living together as if we’re divorced,” Zeytouni adds.

Still, not everyone agrees that resurging religious practices stem from coercion.

“The case with the veil in Tunisia is a matter of fashion and is the result of influence from certain groups; it’s the herd mentality, where girls just imitate each other without understanding the meaning of veil. Even women up to a certain age are influenced by satellite channels,” writer Rach Tounsi explains.

For lawyer and women’s rights activist Monia El Abdi, the most disturbing trend is that young girls are obliged to wear the veil and follow a certain pattern of behaviour “without any regard for the needs of their childhood”.

“The matter is primarily related to underage girls or female students at primary schools. We now see this phenomenon in some popular areas. We really need to pay attention to this issue, especially after we found out that the veil has become prevalent among all classes. It used to be found among adult women and female employees at workplaces or universities. We considered it to be related to the freedom of wearing clothes, at a time when veiled women were making their choices to wear the veil absolutely freely without any external pressures. This was why the women’s movement addressed this issue very cautiously in order not to be accused of disrespecting personal choices,” she says.

[File] Some young Maghreb girls are forced to adopt the veil because of family concerns.

For her part, women’s rights activist Mariam Zghidi says that the worst thing that a woman can be subjected to is the obligation to hide her body.

“I know the story of a girl who is not more than 19 years old and who suffered a lot from a husband who is over 50 years old,” Zghidi said. “She was forced to marry him because he was wealthier than her family that was living in poverty. Her brothers were trying to convince her that she married a pious, God-fearing man. However, after he asked her to wear the niqab, the pious, devoted person turned into a monster.”

According to lawyer and feminist Saida Garrach, “some husbands’ use of the so-called obedience involves a lot of excess. It’s even contrary to the rules of constitution and personal status code, especially article 23 as amended in 1993, which replaced the phrases ‘obedience and care for men’ with ‘partnership and co-operation inside the family’.”

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The practice of forcing a woman to wear hijab contravenes not only the law but Islamic precepts themselves, according to some scholars.

“There is no compulsion in religion, especially as Islam calls for enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong,” Cheikh Tajeddine Kouki maintains. “Even if we assumed that wearing the veil is a duty on the Muslim woman, the man is not required to force his wife, sister or daughter to wear it.”

Men’s guardianship of women doesn’t mean submission but responsibility, professor of Islamic culture Shakir Sharfi argues. “God said ‘men’ rather than ‘males.’ Being a man is a value rather than a gender, which does not apply to all men,” he says.

“The fall of masks is an essential thing in any religion, especially with regards to forcing women to wear the veil,” student Haifa Turki says.

One thought on “The Liberating Shrouds of Tunisia”

  1. Well, it’s like this: there are lots of young (and not so young) women on the campus where I work who wear the hijab, and quite frankly I like the look – it reminds me of Muslim lingerie. The young ladies who don this piece of apparel look ‘tres chic’ – for real, and as long as it’s voluntary, I have no issue with the matter. To the contrary, many people in my neck of the woods scoff and look with disdain at these overtly clad Muslim women. I, on the other hand, silently applaud their public display of their very obvious self confidence and high degree of self esteem, especially here where so many people take umbrage with this sight. One such young adult women wore the white hijab and black abbaye that serves as the uniform of young Muslim Palestinian schoolgirls. That takes mega-chutzpah, but she did it. Isn’t it wonderful (sarcasm folks) that in a country where Moslems can safely parade their religious identity as they please, that Orthodox Jewish men are reduced to hiding their yarmulkes beneath baseball caps out of fear of violent assaults by marauding Jew-haters? Give me a brain transplant – PLEASE!!!! (I posted a very toned down version of this comment on a similar article on the Magharabia web site, but alas, it was rejected).

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