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Tunisian students on hunger strike over right to wear niqab in class

Covering was banned in Tunisia under Ben Ali but protesters say nation's new freedoms include right to practice Islam as they see fit.

Students campaigning for women to be allowed to wear the niqab in class and at exams protest in the administration building at the College of Arts and Humanities at Manouba University on Tuesday.
Students campaigning for women to be allowed to wear the niqab in class and at exams protest in the administration building at the College of Arts and Humanities at Manouba University on Tuesday.

MANOUBA, TUNISIA // At half past noon on Tuesday, at the university in this Tunis suburb, a young protester emerged from an impromptu sit-in at the main administration building, cupped his hands to his mouth and sang the call to prayer.

Inside, girls cloaked in the all-covering niqab vowed to stay outside the dean's office, "all day, if we have to".

It was the first day of exams at Manouba University and the latest clash between conservative Muslims, who want a ban dropped on niqabs in the classroom, and the school's administrators.

The toppling a year ago of the president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, liberated Tunisia, while opening public life to conservative Muslims long persecuted by his autocratic regime.

Since then, a small but noisy Salafi movement has increasingly protested what activists describe as affronts to Islam.

That movement reached the university last October, when mainly Salafi students, at the school of arts and letters, petitioned administrators for a new on-campus prayer room and the right for women to wear the niqab in class. The following month, authorities issued a new regulation upholding the niqab ban, said Habib Kazdaghli, the school's dean.

On November 28, protesters occupied the administration building, leading a week later to the campus' closure. Classes resumed on January 7 after police ordered protesters to leave the building.

Since then, 18 male and female protesters have started hunger strikes, protesters said, while the sit-in shifted to the veranda of a lecture hall.

On Monday evening, Mr Kazdaghli prepared for exams as a showdown loomed with niqab-wearing students vowing to attend their classes.

"I talked to them in the name of the law, they reply in the name of God," Mr Kazdaghli said, describing months of fruitless negotiations. "There are two visions of the world."

Under Ben Ali's rule, the Islamic headscarf was largely banned from public institutions including universities, while the niqab was never seen in public.

Mr Kazdaghli argues that face-veils impede teaching and said protesters have disrupted weeks of classes for the campus's 8,000 students in a bid for what he describes as special privileges.

Protesters, however, say that Tunisia's new freedoms should include the right to practice Islam however - and wherever - they wish.

"We're Muslims, but also students," said a media studies student, Mohamed Amine, 23, keeping vigil on Monday night. "Our main demand is about people being allowed to go to class."

On Tuesday, officials instructed to ban niqab-wearing women from campus unless they signed pledges to remove the garment for exams were hectored by protesters into throwing wide the gate.

But by the middle of the day, several niqab-wearing women had been turned away from their classrooms.

Imen Mimouni, 20, a history student, was one of them.

"They have no right," she said, sitting at the lecture hall later. "I wear a niqab, but I still hear the teacher and see what is written on the board." At the cafeteria, students traded views on the day's events.

"I don't agree with the niqab in the classroom," said Nahed Weslati, 19, a first-year Spanish student. "We haven't had time to get used to it."

"The law on the niqab should change," said a fellow Spanish student, Hassib Afli, 20. "I'm not against the niqab in principle but, for now, people should obey the law."

Across Tunis, four niqab-wearing students continued their hunger strike from their flat.

"I didn't go because I know they'd refuse me, and my health prevents it," said Fatima Hazzi, 22, an Arabic student.

The four women see a doctor and drink 1.5 litres of sugared water daily, but were suffering from severe headaches on Tuesday.

"I'll stay on hunger strike until they open the door to me in my niqab," Ms Hazzi said. "It covers my face, but not my mind."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae