Under pressure from religious demands by ultra-conservative Salafist students, art professors at a Tunisian university are staging a sit-in today to protest what they deem "double standards" of some senior officials and to express their determination to fight for the academic values they believe in.
Since late November 2011, the work of the Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Humanities at the University of Manouba, north of Tunis, has been hindered by a group of Salafist students demanding the right for women to wear the niqab (full-face veil), segregated classes, and a prayer room.
In early December, Salafists briefly held hostage the department’s dean, Habib Kazdaghl, but he refused to submit to their demands. Tensions grew with frequent Salafist protests over the coming days.
Protesters prevented Kazdaghli from entering his office on Tuesday, 6 December, and in response, he suspended all activities at the school until further notice. The Salafis then started an occupation of many administrative offices.
Kazdaghli asked local security forces to consider intervening to break up the sit-in on 9 December, referring to Article 30 in the Higher Education Code, but no action has been taken.
On 27 December, Kazdaghli wrote to both Tunisia’s Interior Minister and Minister of Higher Education, asking them break up the ongoing sit-in, highlighting the safety of teachers, administrative staff and students.
In addition, he asked the Minister of Higher Education for an appointment to discuss the crisis and find a permanent and effective plan for securing the rest of the academic year.
Untill now, the university has not received any support from the officials addressed, and the Salafists continue their occupation of administrative offices, prompting teachers to hold a sit-in of their own.
Manouba University is not the only academic institution facing pressures from ultra-conservative Salafists on campus.
The dean of the University of Sousse, 140 km south of Tunis, allegedly received death threats if he did not authorise the wearing of the niqab inside the university.
The same university witnessed clashes in October when a small group of Salafists entered the campus in an attempt to force the university to accept a female student who had been rejected for wearing a niqab.
Earlier in Gabes, a coastal city in the south of Tunisia, some students demanded the separation of men and women in classes and the university canteen.
The recently elected coalition government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, has promised not to impose strict Islamic rules on society, but a small contingent of Salafists are trying to impose their understanding of Islam on the country and overturn its secular laws.
In mid-December, a press officer for Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) Party, Tunisia's once-banned moderate Islamist party that won 41.7 per cent of seats in parliament commented, that previously suppressed conservative Islamist groups needed time to learn to set boundaries regarding personal freedom.
The press officer added that the actions on the Manouba University campus were disproportionate from both the university staff and Salafist students.