Habiba has worn a niqab since she was 16 years old. “It’s my face and I am free to cover or uncover it,” the 21-year-old, who studies theology and Islamic thought at Zeitouna University in Tunis, told Al Jazeera.
Habiba, who declined to give Al Jazeera her last name, said she feels targeted by the Tunisian authorities for exercising her religious convictions.
In February, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry vowed to introduce stricter controls on the face-covering garment. “In light of the terrorist threats that the country is witnessing and as some suspects and fugitives deliberately wear niqab for disguise and to escape from security units, the ministry… will tighten procedural controls on every person wearing a niqab within the framework of what is authorised by law,” the ministry said in a statement.
But what this means in practical terms remains unclear. Contacted by Al Jazeera, ministry spokesperson Mohamed Ali Aroui declined to offer further details. “We have released a statement and there is nothing to explain in it. The law will be applied on those who wear niqab,” he said, noting the specifics were “a security secret”.
It’s is my face and I am free to cover or uncover it.
The legal situation in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution has been in flux, with legislation from the era of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali still on the books, and the new constitution, signed in February, not yet fully in place. Owing to the 2003 Terrorism Law and a separate Internal Security Forces Law, police can stop pedestrians or motorists in the street, demand identification, search and question them.
The vagueness of the ministry’s vow to “tighten procedural controls” led to media debates over a “niqab ban”, with radio stations asking guest politicians and civil society leaders if they would support such a move. Although authorities have not actually proposed this, some believe February’s statement paves the way for an eventual ban.
Since the 2011 revolution that ousted Ben Ali, violence has plagued Tunisia’s transition. Authorities allege that Islamic fighters were behind recent attacks on security forces and the assassinations of two secular politicians, pointing the finger at Ansar al-Sharia, an armed conservative religious group.
Despite the popularity of the Islamist party Ennahda, which has the largest representation in Tunisia’s national assembly, the attacks have caused many in the country to fear the return of anti-religious policies common under Ben Ali and his secular predecessor, Habib Bourguiba.
Bourguiba banned women from wearing the niqab and the hijab in schools in 1957, reportedly referring to the garment as a “miserable rag”. Once, on camera, he removed a hair-covering from a woman on the street. Under Ben Ali, visible signs of faith, such as a man’s beard or a woman’s niqab, became cause for harassment by security forces.
While many Tunisians are deeply religious, a significant number are secular. An April 2013 Pew poll showed 58 percent of self-described Muslims support some form of influence for religious leaders in politics. Security forces, for the most part, remain suspicious of Tunisia’s devout population.
On February 10, security forces arrested a niqab-clad man suspected of hardliner activities; his blurred picture was broadcast on national television and posted by the Interior Ministry on Facebook.
Lawyer Hanen Khmiri said she is concerned about the repercussions of the ministry’s statement on the rights of women who choose to wear the niqab. “The mutanaqiba (niqab-wearing woman) is a citizen like all citizens. She pays taxes, lives in this country and has rights,” Khmiri told Al Jazeera. “Tightening control for me sends a message that these people are not like us. It’s a label of terrorism that is glued to them, which is not accurate.”
Lotfi Azzouz, head of the Amnesty International office in Tunisia, said the vagueness of the ministry’s recent statement on the niqab could lead to abuses. “Instructions [to security officers] should always be clear, overt, and precise [to] avoid any misunderstanding,” Azzouz told Al Jazeera.
People who wear the niqab have the right to wear what they want, but unfortunately, it was exploited by terrorist elements.
Tunisia’s new constitution guarantees “freedom of consciousness” and religious practise, but there is widespread disagreement about how wearing the niqab fits into practicing Islam, and where limits on religious practise are needed to protect civil rights and security.
“People who wear the niqab have the right to wear what they want, but unfortunately, it was exploited by terrorist elements,” said Walid Zarrouk, spokesperson for a union that represents security force officials.
He said many believed that wanted Ansar al-Sharia leader, Abu Iyadh, escaped al-Fatah mosque in Tunis, at the time besieged by security forces, by wearing a niqab. “Unfortunately, I have to unwillingly agree with this temporary procedure,” he said.
Some women said they would be open to increased security checks, as long as the procedures were done sensitively and by other women, while others expressed concern about the precedent that would be set by introducing tighter controls on the niqab.
“In the future they can say they have found a woman carrying a weapon under her jelbab [baggy dress], and then it would be banned, and so on and so forth,” Habiba said. “And little by little we will go back to how things were, and even worse and more bitter than what people had experienced before.”