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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 September 2006, 18:23 GMT 19:23 UK
Tunisia attacked over headscarves
By Magdi Abdelhadi
Arab affairs analyst, BBC News

Tunisian women shopping for food in the capital, Tunis, on 24 September 2006
More Tunisian women are beginning to wear the headscarf
Human rights groups in Tunisia say women who wear an Islamic headscarf are being persecuted by the authorities.

The groups say that school girls with the headscarf are being harassed and forced to remove the headcover at schools and universities.

The authorities deny this, but say they are encouraging women, instead, to wear modest dress in line with Tunisian traditions.

This is a long-running battle between the authorities and Islamist groups.

It is part of a wider war between the ostensibly secular - and at times despotic - Arab governments and increasingly assertive Islamist groups.

The challenge facing the Tunisian authorities, like in other Arab countries facing resurgent Islamist movements, is how to crack down on one of the most potent symbols of Islamism - the female head-cover - without being liable to charges of being un-Islamic.

Back in 1981, at the height of the confrontation between the Tunisian government and Islamists, a decree was issued banning what was described as "sectarian dress".

But justifying the ban on "sectarian" grounds sounds bizarre in a society where 98% of the population are Sunni Muslims.

It is a justification that betrays the government's inability to confront the Islamist doctrine head on.

'Personal choice'

Islamists say the Tunisian ban is not only against Islam, but that it also violates personal freedom.

Rachid al-Ghanoushi, a leading Tunisian Islamist who lives in exile in London, said the state had no right to interfere with personal choice.

"Does it harm the state when a woman wears a headscarf or not?" he said. "We are not demanding the imposition of any particular dress on women, we are demanding public and personal freedom."

But the authorities apparently fear that the appeal to freedom of choice is a pretext used by Islamists to promote their doctrine.

Despite the official ban, increasing numbers of Tunisian women are beginning to wear the controversial headscarf, apparently under the influence of tele-preachers on satellite channels whose influence bypasses national restrictions.

It seems that the Islamic headscarf is increasingly becoming not only a symbol of identity but an act of defiance against autocratic governments.

Headscarves in the headlines
10 Feb 04 |  Europe
Egypt TV 'bans veiled presenters'
06 Sep 03 |  Middle East
Timeline: Tunisia
28 Jul 06 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Tunisia
06 May 06 |  Country profiles

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