Tearing the fabric of material speech

Like some Western governments, several Muslim states forbid Islamic dress in universities and official buildings.

A woman wearing the niqab, a veil worn by the most conservative Muslims that exposes only a woman's eyes, walking in Marseille. (photo credit: AP)
A woman wearing the niqab, a veil worn by the most conservative Muslims that exposes only a woman's eyes, walking in Marseille.
(photo credit: AP)
Western governments aren’t the only bodies which have curbed women’s rights to religious expression by banning Muslim garb.
France, Belgium and Quebec have all passed variations of laws restricting Muslim head scarves or face-concealing niqabs – proscriptions which have been widely covered in the international press. And yes, shame on those countries for attacking religious expression.
Less discussed is the fact that many Muslim countries enforce similar bans. In the summer of 2010, Syria banned the niqab and any other burqa-like face-concealing garment from all public and private universities, and extended the ban to include female instructors. The UAE forbids women to wear the niqab in some government jobs, according to Gaelle Picherit-Duthler, a communication professor at the all-female Dubai campus of Zayed University.
Government-owned EgyptAir forbids flight attendants from wearing the hijab, or head scarf. On my EgyptAir flight from Cairo to Tunis, I asked a male crew chief if this policy was still enforced. “Of course,” he said, while making a face as though he had smelled rotting garbage. The Egyptian government may also forbid university professors to wear the niqab.
DECADES BEFORE France and Belgium moved to ban face-covering veils, Tunisia declared a similar ban. Such bans in Arab countries reflect a deep suspicion of conservative Islam by secular regimes, or involve promotion of what governments perceive as a modern image, which is why you won’t see a headscarved woman reporting the news on Egyptian government TV.
Both concerns drive policies on conservative Muslim dress in Tunisia, a North African country of 11 million, which goes several steps beyond other Arab regimes in the wrong direction. The country’s Decree 108, issued in 1981, bans “sectarian” dress (largely meaning hijabs or niqabs for women and long beards for men) in government buildings, and a similar decree in 1986 extended the ban to public educational settings.
Decree 108 proclaimed that female civil servants must “remain in the enlightened image as desired by their liberator, president Habib Bourgiba,” according to Amnesty International. Tunisia’s late founding leader once reportedly called the head scarf an “odious rag,” and the current leader has referred to the accessory as a “garment of foreign origin.”
Tunisia is generally considered one of the most progressive Arab states on matters of gender and sexual expression. One hotel near the coastal town of Monastir hosts a weekly drag show featuring Belgian and Tunisian crossdressers – something you’re unlikely to see elsewhere in the Arab world. (I attended the show on what happened to be the eve of the most sacred Islamic holiday.) This drag cabaret featured many garments of foreign origin, and also foreign music, humor and languages (English and French), but didn’t apparently challenge the “liberator’s” conception of the enlightened image. Hijabs and niqabs, however, somehow threaten Tunisia’s cultural identity.
As decrees rather than laws, Tunisian proclamations against the hijab and niqab aren’t always consistently enforced, and the government has had periods of both tolerance and crackdowns on conservative dress over the past three decades.
Currently, Tunisian women do not appear restricted from wearing the garment in public areas, which has markedly increased. Several reports in recent years, including documents from the US State Department and Amnesty International, have alleged official harassment of Tunisian women wearing the hijab in public places, but I have not seen evidence of this anywhere in the country.
Like most Muslim countries, Tunisia has witnessed a conservative Islamic resurgence in recent years. The government, though, isn’t thrilled, and shows few signs it will annul its 1980s decrees.
However unevenly enforced, any ban on religious dress isn’t the mark of a modern nation. While Tunisia deserves credit for highly progressive women’s rights legislation enacted in the 1950s and since – which ensured many basic rights still denied to women in many Arab countries, including rigorous protection from polygamy – dictating to others what amounts to “modern,” acceptable dress is a vile policy.
Forcing a woman to burn a bra doesn’t make one a liberator.
Tunisia serves as a reminder that governments forcing Muslim women to look like the secular majority aren’t found only in the euro zone or eastern Canada. Living in Islamic countries is no guarantee that Muslim women can define modesty for themselves.
The writer is a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin–D–Martin, or contact him atmartin@aucegypt.edu

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