Additional Reporting by Mohammad Al-Hamroni, IOL Correspondent

Veiled girls and women are being discriminated against in Tunisia.

TUNIS — The heated debate on the hijab ban has renewed in Tunisia as the government defends its stance on claims of protecting women’s rights, while female students’ sufferings go non-stop with the start of a new academic year.

“It will slow our progress. We will take a step back and it will hit the basis of society’s stability and people’s prosperity,” Hedi Mhenni, general secretary of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party said defending the ban, Reuters reported Friday, October 6.

Mhenni said the legislation must be respected in educational institutions and public buildings. Otherwise, he warned, the issue could become a hurdle for the country’s development process.

“If today we accept the headscarf, tomorrow we’ll accept that women’s rights to work and vote and receive an education be banned and they’ll be seen as just a tool for reproduction and housework.”

In 1981, then Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987) ratified law no. 108 banning Tunisian women from wearing hijab in state offices.

Worse still, the government issued in the 1980s and 1990s more restrictive enactments.

Hijab have been making a comeback among young women and students in the North African country, despite the 108 law which describes the hair covering as a “sectarian dress”.

Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not a religious symbol displaying one’s affiliations.

Violation

Tunisian human rights activists, lawyers and intellectuals lashed out at the government oppressive campaign launched every academic year stressing that the hijab ban violates Tunisian women’s rights.

“The way the government deals with the issue of hijab infringes upon the fundamentals of human rights and contradicts with the tenets of our religion and identity,” Ziad al- Dolati, ex leader of al-Nahda movement in Tunisia, told IslamOnline.net.

Al-Dolati criticized woman rights organizations in Tunisia for their double standards, saying they do not practice what they preach when it comes to hijab-clad students expelled from classes.

“It is shocking that they are staunch advocates of women’s right to education, but turn a blind eye to hijab-clad girls deprived of this basic right,” he said.

These organizations adopts ideologies that negate the very sense of Arab and Islamic identity, echoed Nour al-Din al-Awaidi, editor en-chief of Aqlaam online magazine.

“They consider hijab a symbol for women’s retardation and lack of freedom,” he said.

Harassments

Human rights activists and Tunisian parents voiced their deep concerns about the rising harassment cases against veiled students in schools and universities whether by security personnel or government officers.

“Veiled students were not allowed to join school classes in Sfax and the education local official refused to meet their parents,” said a hijab-clad student, who requested anonymity.

She added that in other institutes veiled girls were kicked out and others forced to sign a paper pledging to take off their hijab in order to continue their studies.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, some of the hijab-clad students were forced to give up their education to escape the continuous abuse.

Tunisia is among a minority of Muslim countries that impose restrictions on hijab.

Turkey’s secular state bans women from wearing hair covering at government-run universities.

In Europe, France has triggered a controversy in 2004 by adopting a bill banning hijab and religious insignia in state schools.

French Muslims — a sizeable six-million minority — along with practicing Jews, Sikhs and international human rights groups strongly condemned the law, saying it violated the freedom of religion right in secular France.