The issue of the niqab (the full face veil) is suddenly being raised in Tunisia, as the country faces security threats. The ban on wearing the niqab in public spaces has been thrust into a national debate between those who justify this measure by security challenges, and others keen on preserving individual freedoms.
The debate on the niqab has been relaunched in the wake of various recent events. Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui heavily insinuated during one of his media statements that terrorists were using the niqab to evade police checkpoints. Indeed, the recent arrest of a notorious criminal traveling while covered in the niqab demonstrated that this garment can be used for concealment purposes.
In reaction to this situation, Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said the banning of the niqab was a political matter that fell outside the scope of his ministry. He added that Tunisia was a country of freedom and could not ban the niqab. However, in light of recent terrorist threats, the ministry announced on Feb. 17 new measures to tighten control over those wearing the niqab without prejudice to the law.
The niqab is an issue that Tunisia had already encountered after the revolution. Students at Manouba University's faculty of letters rebelled against the administration’s decision to prohibit access of veiled women to examination rooms. Completely abandoned by his administration and by the state, the dean, Habib Kazdaghli, had to fight alone those students who did not hesitate to resort to violence against him.
Then-minister of higher education, Moncef Ben Salem, had decreed that the decision on whether or not to ban the niqab was not within his competences and went beyond the scope of the ministry. He said that it was up to the National Constituent Assembly to decide, and he had even sought arbitration before the administrative tribunal in this case. Almost the same argument is repeated today by the minister of interior to divest himself of the responsibility for such a decision.
The country’s decision-makers find themselves caught between the security threat hammer and the individual liberties anvil. On the one hand, it is legitimate to take protective measures against a possible security risk by imposing a ban on wearing the niqab. On the other hand, is it logical to impose collective punishment on all those who made the choice of wearing the niqab — even if this choice is debatable — just because criminals are using it as a cover? That is the question.
British Prime Minister David Cameron once said that putting in place “every possible safeguard to ensure that rights are not violated” means the country cannot fulfill its duty to protect national security. Tunisia is now facing this dilemma. France, a country with secular tradition, faced this choice and preferred the policy of legislating on this issue. The full veil was banned in France on April 11, 2011. A series of various events precipitated the debate on this issue. For instance, a woman behind the wheel wearing a niqab was subject to an identity check in Nantes. Several complaints were filed against this law, including objections to the simple act of passing a law that applies only to a few hundred people. Obviously, the issue of individual rights and freedoms was discussed but ultimately the law was passed. Under this law, wearing the full veil is sanctioned: hiding one’s face under a hood or a niqab in public places is liable to a fine, which can reach up to 30,000 euros [$41,200] for any person who imposes this veil on others.
What is the result of this law today? The least we can say is that it is mitigated. The law allowed curbing, to some extent, the ardor of young girls who do not wear the niqab yet. Knowing it is prohibited by law, they refrained from wearing the full veil and simply contented themselves with other forms of clothing that do not cover the face. On the other hand, the law is inadequately implemented as many admit having contravened it and continue to wear their niqab in public places without fearing the authorities. Therefore, questions arise as to the applicability of this law. The French assessment on this aspect is equivocal: only a few dozen fines were issued after a year of enforcement. The question is: is this because the law is inapplicable or because the population targeted by this law is already quite small?
Back to the Tunisian context, it is difficult to imagine how a similar legislation would be applied. If the niqab is banned in public places in Tunisia, what will the contravening party be liable to? A fine or imprisonment? The enforcement is also problematic. Do we have police officers stationed to check to what extent the faces of passers by are covered? The risk of misuse and misinterpretation is very prevalent.
The debate on the issue of banning the niqab in Tunisia appears to be only in its early stages. The security perspective regarding the matter must pit its arguments against those defending individual freedoms. The role of institutions in the debate, which is clearly social, will be critical. The fatal mistake of President Moncef Marzouki, who awkwardly took up the cause of the niqab in schools, must not be repeated. Marzouki had declared, “I cannot understand and I do not accept preventing niqab-wearing students from taking their exams.” The irony is that he made this statement on May 16, 2013, during the national dialogue.
The debate promises to be heated and eventful. Pitting different security or religious arguments, banning the niqab should be approached with tact and moderation. That is to say, the approach must be different than that of the president of the republic. The good thing is that today we can speak of this issue freely.