This week, a few hundred students and teachers at Manouba University in Tunisia demonstrated against the niqab, or veil, which is used by some ultra-conservative women to cover their faces. It has been outlawed in Tunisian schools and government offices for decades, ever since it was described by the modern republic’s secular founder Habib Bourguiba as “that odious rag.” One sign at the demonstration said “Science before the niqab.” Another said “no to shackles, no to niqab, knowledge is free.” The protest was a counter-demonstration against an Islamist sit-in at the humanities department.
I’ve seen a few women in Tunisian cities wearing niqabs, but not very many. That kind of headgear is far more common in the Persian Gulf nations than in North Africa. While having coffee at an outdoor café in downtown Tunis, the capital, a group of women with their faces covered walked past. All the locals sitting at tables near mine eyed the women as though they had been beamed in from another planet. I assumed these ladies weren’t even Tunisians, but Saudis. They could hardly have drawn more attention to themselves had they dressed like that in a small town in Bolivia.