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Discrimination against veiled women thrives in Tunisia,

Discrimination against veiled women thrives in Tunisia, "the nation of freedoms"

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إقرأ باللغة العربية:

بعد تصريحات فنان تونسي... هل التمييز مستمر ضد المحجّبات في "بلد الحريات"؟

In Tunisian popular memory, the removal of the hijab is associated with the late leader Habib Bourguiba, who on August 3, 1957, removed the "safsari", the traditional head covering in Tunisia, from the heads of many Tunisian women in front of a large popular crowd. The symbolic move was meant to indicate that he was liberating women from all the restrictions that were shackling them down, ahead of the independence.

Sallouha Bouzgarou, the wife of "Qadi al-Islam" Abdelkader Mahalla, was the first woman whose hijab Bourguiba removed and told her in his famous words: "You will not need it on your head anymore."

At the end of his rule, specifically in 1981, Bourguiba issued Circular No. 108, prohibiting the wearing of headscarves inside public institutions, stating it is a sectarian garment that is contrary to the spirit of the times and a manifestation of discrimination.

In Tunisian popular memory, the removal of the veil is associated with Habib Bourguiba, who on August 3, 1957, removed the headscarf from the heads of many Tunisian women in front of a large crowd and told them: "You will not need it on your head anymore"

“A violation of freedoms and liberties”

The violation of the "freedom of dress" continued during the rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as well, with the right of every veiled woman to work and education being confiscated. During entry to school or university, every student was required to sign the charter of the educational institution’s internal regulations, which considers "refraining from wearing sectarian dress or garment" among its most prominent provisions. In the event of a violation of the provisions of this clause, the violator is subject to expulsion, which has prevented thousands from continuing their studies.

Discrimination against veiled women was not limited only to public institutions, as they were subjected to security campaigns even during travel and transport, which evolved over time with the development of events in the country, into arrests, insults and continuous harassment. This official trend did not end until after the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime in 2011, and that date marked the end of the ban on the veil and the start of the freedom of every woman to choose the dress that suits her according to her convictions, which made the number of veiled women increase and enable them to join and work in all fields.

The reconciliation with the hijab did not last long. Shortly after Tunisian women regained their initial right to freedom of dress, and the nightmare of repressive practices against veiled women disappeared, some voices that saw the hijab as a form of backwardness and ignorance, began to rise against the headscarf.

Hostility to the hijab is an issue that is continuously being renewed with the renewal of discriminatory statements that some use against veiled women, causing controversy among public opinion.

Tunisian runner Habiba Ghribi criticized a young female runner for wearing the hijab at a press conference and told her, "Choose between the hijab and running". Her hostile words flustered the runner, who could not stop herself from bursting into tears

Provocative statements

Tunisian artist Mohamed Kouka, while hosting a television program, expressed a stance that rejects the idea of the hijab, saying, "The hijab is a heritage from some societies, in my opinion, that cling to outdated traditions and customs that may have come from religion. The hijab cuts women off from society as a person, as human beings, as a human. The hijab makes women inferior and less worthy and this is why I hate it to the point that when I come across a veiled woman, I wish to tear the headscarf up. The hijab is a woman's denial of her humanity. In France, I find beautiful girls wearing headscarves. This means that the hijab is rooted in their subconscious, and it means that women should be less than men. I hate such a thing as a hijab."

Mohamed Kouka's statement is not the first of its kind against the hijab, as the former leader of the Nidaa Tounes party, Tahar Ben Hassine, described the hijab in a televised statement as "the cloth of the donkey", saying that the hijab is against Islam and against humanity and that women who accept the hijab accept tyranny and injustice. In previous statements, Ben Hassine also expressed his intention to ban the headscarf in Tunisia.

Hostility to the hijab is an issue that is continuously being revived with the renewal of discriminatory statements that some use against veiled women, causing controversy among Tunisia’s public opinion

For her part, Tunisian runner Habiba Ghribi had previously criticized a young female runner for wearing the hijab at a press conference and told her, "Choose between the hijab and running. Choose between your hijab and your future. It’s not obligatory like prayer". Her hostile words flustered the runner, who was embarrassed and could not stop herself from crying.

In addition to radio and television statements, a TunisAir flight attendant was dismissed from her job for wearing a headscarf, and the Minister of Transport justified the expulsion at the time by saying that the hijab reduces hearing by 30%, which sparked a campaign of ridicule and mockery among Tunisians.


Contrary to being branded and stigmatized as backward and ignorant, a veiled woman in Tunisia is branded as extremist and belonging to Islamist parties even if she has no political affiliation with them. Most human rights organizations that call for women's freedom and sanctify their choices, whatever they may be, provided that they stem from their convictions and personal path, and fiercely oppose everything that could threaten their right to freedom of decision, do not lift a finger in the face of this amount of discriminatory statements regarding the rights of veiled women and the escalation of hate speech towards them.

Dr. Ghofran Husseini, journalist and university researcher in civilization and Islamism, believes that similar statements "express a racist mentality, the rejection of the other and the lack of acceptance of difference and pluralism that characterize the Tunisian people.” He also says that they are "statements that go against the identity of Tunisians and their cultural and religious affiliation, as well as a blatant violation of freedom of belief and freedom of dress," expressing his surprise that they came from an actor, because the actor "belongs to the educated class and similar discourses are far from the culture that requires pluralism, coexistence, and acceptance of the other."

Speaking to Raseef22, Husseini says that these statements are no different from those who are hostile to non-veiled women and want to wear the hijab or niqab by force and violence, pointing out that when they are issued in the media and thus enter the homes of Tunisians where there are veiled and unveiled mothers and wives, they become a blatant attack and discrimination of Tunisians on the basis of dress, belief and personal convictions, while every person has the freedom to act and live his/her life through his/her individual choices.

The researcher believes that "the reason for these statements is the confusion among some of those affiliated with the cultural elites between the political position on political Islam, extremist religious trends, and religious rites," adding that "their hostility to ideas and politics has shifted to hostility to people's religious rituals, their way of worship, and relationship with God."

This hostility has moved "from the political space to attacking people's convictions, customs, identity and religious rituals, and this is due to ignorance, because thinking that is based on ignorance and lack of awareness does not distinguish between things and does not differentiate between political orientations that we can disagree with, oppose and struggle against, and between people's convictions, ideas, and their practice of their religion and rituals, or what they believe to be their rituals,” says the researcher.

Our society still has not yet accepted personal freedom, personal choice, differences in skin color, sexual orientation, and religion

In his criticism of the silence of human rights organizations regarding these statements, the university researcher spoke about the double standards of many human rights and feminist organizations that strongly defend some unveiled women. He says if an assault against the hijab takes place with verbal or physical violence, or even threats of it, they do not issue any condemnation or any form of rejection and opposition to such speeches and statements that can only be described as violent against women.

Husseini goes on to state, "We defend women, whether they are veiled or unveiled, and we defend men and human rights, whether he is religious or non-religious. However, to keep silent on human rights and women's rights when it comes to the veil within violent, racist and eradicative discourses is shocking and requires human rights defenders to take a pause for self-criticism, accountability, and a re-evaluation of their human rights performance towards all segments of Tunisian society, regardless of its diversity and pluralism."

He concludes by stressing that it is not possible to build a different peaceful society that believes in human rights under a policy of double standards, considering that those who are similar to us in ideas are more deserving than others in support, and in that, there’s a vertical division of Tunisian society by making one segment or category higher than another, as if there are first-class citizens and others who are in the fifth or sixth class.

"Pluralism is not Tunisian"

Sociology professor Dora Mahfouz stressed the importance and necessity of human respect for freedom of opinion and choice, pointing out that diversity and pluralism is a social norm that has not yet entered into the traditions of Tunisians who have not yet adapted to democracy.

She also pointed out that some societies take decades to become normalized with customs like difference and diversity, and that Tunisia is new to diversity and pluralism, noting that they are lacking in the political scene, let alone in the social one.

By rejecting pluralism, conflicts are multiplied and people's energy is wasted in false conflicts that hold back societies instead of advancing them towards civilization and democracy and accepting differences and free choices for each person

The researcher concluded by stressing that as long as others do not impose their opinion on other women, they are free in their choices, and there’s no need to reject something just because they do not like it, as it’s not their bodies and they cannot dictate what others should or should not wear. She added that just like it’s forbidden for veiled women to impose their ideas on others, others should not impose their opinion on them.

It is true that these aggressive statements against veiled women cannot be considered singular or rare, because they are repeatedly taking place at an almost periodical rate, and show the position of a significant part of Tunisian society, but another part of society in turn denounces these attitudes and positions as a form of discrimination and social stigma.

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