TUNIS // One evening last year, a computer technician called Afef switched on her television, tuned to an Islamic programme and felt her world suddenly change. "Something awoke in me," said Afef, 27, who did not wish to give her surname. For the first time, she resolved to wear the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, "even though that's difficult in Tunisia". Next week women around the world will observe International Women's Day, honouring feminist advances of the 20th century. That resonates strongly in Tunisia, where women's rights have long been a point of national pride.
That pride has led the government to crack down heavily on the hijab, called an "odious rag" by modern Tunisia's founder, Habib Bourguiba. Authorities consider the headscarf a sign of creeping Islamic extremism, while feminists see male domination. But for women such as Afef, it is primarily a matter of religious freedom. Tunisia's secularism owes much to Mr Bourguiba, who ruled the country for three decades after it gained independence from France in 1956. He considered women's emancipation central to building a modern state. Among the titles engraved proudly on the bronze doors of his mausoleum is "Liberator of Women".
Often, that has meant liberation from tradition, which Mr Bourguiba believed was holding Tunisia back. Under his rule, a new family code was enacted that gave women equality with men in key areas, and Islamic schools and courts were shut down. "There's not one single country in the Arab world where women have the rights they have here," said Khedija Arfaoui, a member of the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development, a Tunis-based, non-governmental organisation studying women's issues.
Tunisian law forbids polygamy, makes 18 the minimum age for marriage and gives women the final word on whom they marry. Contraception and abortion have been legal and available for decades. As secularism has advanced, religion has retreated. Unlike other Arab capitals, the Tunis skyline of handsome colonial buildings is largely bereft of minarets, and the call to prayer that punctuates Muslim life elsewhere is absent.
But beneath the surface, Tunisia remains a Muslim country. Opposition to the authoritarian rule of Mr Bourguiba and his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has often taken an Islamic tone. When bread riots erupted in the 1980s, cries of "God is great!" rang in the streets. "That was when the Islamist movement organised and appeared as a threat to the secular nation that we are," Mrs Arfaoui said. In the struggle for Tunisia's soul, the government has arrested thousands of Islamist activists. Many more have fled the country, including Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist opposition Nahda movement, who lives in exile in Britain.
Conservative Muslims consider the headscarf a religious requirement. The government views it as an emblem of Islamist sentiment that threatens the country's secular society. "The Quran only mentions that women must wear respectful clothing," said Fethi Bouajiha, a spokesman for the religious affairs ministry. "Others would like to determine one single model of clothes - hijab, gloves, niqab - but those are only human interpretations."
The headscarf has been periodically banned from public offices, schools and universities. In 2006, a court found the ban unconstitutional, "but that doesn't stop the administration from using repressive means of preventing women from wearing the headscarf", said Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights. Police outside schools and universities regularly forced students to remove headscarves before entering, Mr Trifi said. According to a report last year by Amnesty International, women have reported being harassed in the street or forced by police to sign written commitments to stop wearing the headscarf.
That crashes headlong into a wave of piety sweeping through Tunisian society, said Ikbal al Gharbi, professor of religious anthropology at Tunis's Zaytouna University. The smooth curve of the headscarf, drawn tightly over the hair, is an increasingly common sight among the crowds of chic young women on the streets of Tunisian cities. A few are pressured by family, Mrs al Gharbi said. But many choose the headscarf out of religious conviction, often inspired by the daily barrage of television shows from the Middle East featuring conservative scholars.
"The headscarf confuses religion with political ideology," said Mr Bouajiha, from the religious affairs ministry. "For these women, if you're not wearing a headscarf, you're not a Muslim." But Afef tells it differently. For her, the headscarf is a statement of faith, not politics. "I know that a woman can be a Muslim without wearing the headscarf," Afef said. "But I think those women have something sleeping inside them which will awake - I have confidence in God."
Her first day at work in a headscarf brought dark looks and nasty murmurs. After a year of plucky good nature, she said her colleagues have accepted her decision. "When you put on the headscarf, you feel as though you've chosen your path," she said. "And that gives pleasure to life." email@example.com