Reclaiming the Veil in Tunisia

Editor's Note: Natalia Rankine-Galloway's post is a special feature to Her Blueprint in response to the recent outbreak of violence in Tunisia. Natalia is a mother of one, military spouse, and managing partner of Culture Baby. A global nomad, she is always traveling and frequently blogging about culture, motherhood, entrepreneurship, and her favorite destinations. You can read more at

As we stood side by side at the window watching crowds gather outside the US Embassy in Tunis, I asked Leila how things got so bad. She just shook her head. “This isn’t my country anymore” she said, “it used to be beautiful.” 

Tunisia is the northernmost country in Africa and lies along the Mediterranean Sea.
The violence that has gripped Tunisia in recent days was as shocking and sudden for me, a recent transplant, as it was for many Tunisians. Sporadic incidents of unrest had been reported around the country since the Jasmine Revolution of early 2011, but they had mostly involved the breaking of bottles of alcohol at tourist hotels or riots surrounding a controversial art exhibit.

Neither Leila or I knew as we parted ways that afternoon that by the next morning the Embassy would be smoldering and that the order to evacuate all but non-emergency personnel would part us. 

I began this post before the attack; my subject was to have been what the revolution meant for women in the new Tunisia. As I sit back at my computer now and revisit what I wrote, I can’t help but think of my last talk with Leila.

Leila, a working mother of two, had never worn a hijab or head scarf until after Jasmine revolution that launched the Arab Spring and deposed long-time dictator Zine el- Abidine Ben-Ali. Under the old regime, wearing even a simple hijab could invite harassment by police. Full-body coverings like the niqab were almost never seen.

It is counter intuitive to a Western observer to associate an authoritarian dictatorship in the Arab world with vehemently secular policies and an emphasis on women’s rights. But such is the legacy of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba.

The famous Tunisian founding father, who requested the epitaph “liberator of women” be carved on his mausoleum, made the equality of the sexes among his top priorities upon Tunisia’s independence in 1956. Not solely on the issue of women’s rights, Bourguiba considered Islam writ-large an anchor around his efforts to modernize Tunisia and vigorously repressed Islamic opposition throughout his 30-year rule. When his grip on power weakened as he aged, an undercurrent of protest finally led to Ben-Ali’s takeover in 1987. 

Ben Ali was even more authoritarian than his predecessor, cracking down on any political opposition to include Muslim conservatism. At the same time, however, he instituted practical reforms like access to education and family planning; reforms that have resulted in Tunisia having some of the lowest infant mortality rates, highest percentage of female university students and highest female life expectancy of any country in the Muslim world. 

It is confusing to see a record of advancement on women’s rights set against a curtailing of basic human rights. Perhaps it was this incongruity that helped Ben Ali, who tightly controlled the country’s outward facing image, maintain his police state for so long; using the issue of women’s rights as a show pony that could be trotted out as evidence of his country’s modernity and freedoms. 

But the Jasmine revolution shattered that facade. It was a remarkable and peaceful revolution with global repercussions followed by a more remarkable and peaceful election almost one year ago. The Ennahda party, a moderate Islamist party that had been banned under Ben Ali since 1992 was elected to power and has been laboring to present the nation with its new constitution, due next month.

Whether the party was chosen as a clear alternative to the hated old regime or as a conscious choice in favor of moving religion into politics is a question one would have to ask of each individual voter and one that will be particularly pointed as the conservative Islamists in the country, known as Salafists, make their presence known.

In the past, the Party has declared its intent to be inspired by Islam and its values, not to seek an Islamic state. On the issue of women’s rights in particular, they have vehemently denied the implication that they might mandate the wearing of the veil, or in any other respect turn back the clock on the country’s history of female emancipation.

But their actions in the coming months will speak volumes as they, like all Arab Spring Governments, will have to balance their relations with the West with the demands of their citizens who massed outside US embassies.

So while the country struggles with this old and recurring question of what role Islam will play in this new Tunisian society, the rights of its women hang in the balance. Many Tunisian women see their freedoms as a birthright, and have a deep fear of the new government’s intentions. Many like Leila, have welcomed the chance to choose to wear a veil for the first time in their lives but miss the stability and order Ben-Ali sustained.

In a televised town hall discussion held some weeks ago, on the question of whether or not women’s rights in Tunisia were under threat, chief among the concerns of the participants was the recently proposed Article 28 to the constitution still under development. Translated, the article reads: “the state guarantees to protect women’s rights, as they stand, under the principle of man’s complement within the family and man’s partner in developing the country.”

The identification of women as complements to men, rather than citizens apart was seen as an alarming failure to respect women’s individuality and resulted in protests in the capital (though of a very different kind and by a very different crowd than those that destroyed the embassy on September 14th). 

In the town hall discussion, activists took the representative of the Ennahda party to task, asking why the party was failing to keep the rights of women sacrosanct. At the same event, the fact that unveiled women were now falling victim to assaults as veiled women had under the dictatorship was cited as an indication that perhaps the status of women was not as rosy as commonly thought.

Habib Bourguiba once referred to the veil as an “odious rag” and vehemently discouraged its wearing although he never succeeded in outlawing it. In 2006, Ben-Ali’s government launched a campaign to ban the wearing of veils in public schools or government offices. Now, as eruptions of violence flare around this otherwise stable country, it would seem that the choice to choose the veil so recently won could again be under threat. Not by those that would forbid it, but by those who would mandate it.