Salafists force temporary closure of Tunisian university's arts department

Ati Metwaly, Wednesday 7 Dec 2011

Ultra-conservative Salafist students force temporary closure of Manouba University's arts department in row over niqab and gender segregation

Salafist and secular students clash at the Humanities and Literature Faculty in Manouba University, near Tunis Nov. 29, 2011. A protest by dozens of Salfist students to demand the right for women to wear niqab during examinations turned violent as they clashed with secular students on Tuesday in the latest sign of growing conflict between the Islamic and secular class in the country. (Photo: Reuters)

Since elections in October, Manouba University, located near the Tunisian capital, Tunis, has been subjected to pressure from ultra-conservative Salafist religious groups to scrap a ban on female students wearing the niqab (face covering) whilst taking exams. Tunisian universities allow women to wear headscarves, yet ban the niqab.

In late November, hundreds of Salafist students staged a protest on the university campus demanding the right for women to wear the niqab, asking for segregated classes and a prayer room. Secular students opposed the protest and responded to Islamist chants with the national anthem. Scuffles broke out but there were no serious injuries.

Salafists briefly held Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the school of arts, letters, and humanities, hostage, but he refused to submit to their demands.

Tensions grew throughout the week with frequent Salafist protests. On Tuesday 6 December, protesters prevented Kazdaghli from entering his office. In response, he suspended all activities at the school until further notice.

Other universities across Tunisia face similar pressures from Salafists trying to impose their ultra-conservative brand of Islam on their fellow students. 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 this month 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, lead 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.

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