Recently, a nationwide debate arose in Tunisia over women wearing niqāb – what is known as sharia veil or burka – different names for the same cloth. With the fear of terrorism everywhere, deputies at the parliament proposed a bill on the 18th of March 2016 that bans face covering in public places. This measure, as described by the members of parliament, helps cracking down on radicalism. It relies on the fact that terrorists would use niqāb to escape from security agents and hide their identities. The public opinion is divided over the matter leaving a polarized scene between proponents and opponents.
To be honest, I was confused by this controversy at first and I couldn’t make up my mind on the matter. Being able to find groundbreaking arguments to support each position didn’t make it any easier. What was more worthy? Ensuring security or protecting rights?
On the one hand, fighting terrorism is a priority and being lenient in making drastic decisions would allow radicals to instill more terror, death and bloodshed and will only offer them the space to spread their extremist ideology. On the other hand, wouldn’t endorsing the ban of face covering be the ultimate expression of rights violation? To have a choice about what to wear is to respect the freedom of expression which was granted in Article 31 of the Tunisian Constitution: “Freedom of opinion, thought, expression, information and publication shall be guaranteed. These freedoms shall not be subject to prior censorship.” » Imposing on women not to wear the niqāb is unconstitutional. It is downright stripping them of their rights and liberties to express their religious beliefs.
Democracy is supposed to protect and respect plurality under the rule of law. I fear that allowing such laws would endanger the core of the democratic rule which is the respect of freedoms and liberties. If passed, the bill will be a backlash toward Ben Ali’s regime. Before the revolution, women were often harassed , persecuted and punished for wearing hijab – of course, niqāb was out of the question at the time. Such “security measures” would allow the shadow of a dictatorship to jeopardize the democratic achievements, only this time, under a legal umbrella of fighting terrorism. As described by Benjamin Franklin, “those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither”.
I came to realize that even if I personally disagree with the idea of with wearing the niqāb, I will not support its banning. I will not support taking away a liberty from anyone, the same way I don’t want my liberty to be taken away from me, the same way you don’t want to lose you liberty of choice. What if it was the other way around? What if women were banned from uncovering their faces? Which is actually the case in places under the rule of ISIS , like in Syria or Iraq. Of course we view this act of enforcing face covers on women as a violation of rights, we consider it inhumane even. Then why do we allow the double standards? Dictating the niqāb is as totalitarian as banning it. The choice of wearing one should only remain for the woman to make.
In an interview with a few female students who wear niqāb in Sfax, all of them interestingly denounced the law proposal and expressed their willingness to take their cause to the streets in peaceful manifestations if necessary. “I made my choice to wear the niqāb two years ago by conviction, no one forced me to do it. It was my way to strengthen my spiritual relationship with God. Why would that hurt anyone? I believe it’s my right to wear what I want and be respected for it,” stated a 23 year-old woman who preferred to keep her identity anonymous.
After all, terrorists still operated with no respect to face covers whatsoever. Sousse attack for instance on 26th June 2015 was done plainly in daylight. Not wearing niqāb not only didn’t frighten the terrorist from committing his act of terror but also did not stop him from slaughtering 38 people. If the correlation between terrorism and wearing face covers is blurry, then the effectiveness of this security measure should be questioned.
Under whatever circumstances, freedom of choice and freedom of expression should remain protected and untouched. It is our responsibility as believers in democratic rule to defend these values and ensure that these hard lines are not to be crossed. “I do not agree with what you have to say” says Evelyn Beatrice Hall, “but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.