In a trial that has gripped Tunisia for months, a court acquitted a Tunisian university dean of assaulting a veiled female student.
The court decided that a medical report submitted by the student and intended to prove the assault was fraudulent.
“Justice triumphed, but the battle is not over,” said Habib Kazdaghli, dean of arts, letters and humanities at the University of Manouba, referring to continuing tensions between Islamists and secularists.
Indeed, the Tunisian Minister of Higher Education, Moncef Ben Salem, announced that veiled students will be allowed to take final examinations this semester and called for postponing a final decision on students’ wearing the veil in classrooms until after the exams. The Minister, who had said earlier that he is against the veil ban in universities, added that his ministry is going to present three options to the national legislature. One would be to allow students to wear the veil on campus, inside classes and at the exams. Another option would be to allow veil only inside the university lobby but to remove it in classes and exams, and a third would be to ban veil completely at universities.
The minister’s declaration has opened the door for future conflicts over veil wearing on campuses, university autonomy, and the role of religion in Tunisian society.
The court handed down suspended prison sentences for the women, with one getting two months and the other four months.
The lawyer for the women, Anouar Ouled Ali, said he plans to appeal the ruling. The General Union of Tunisian Students, the Islamist party, is planning a protest in front of the headquarters of Manouba University on May 3 denouncing the acquittal of the dean and the sentencing the two female students. “The court’s decision is unjust,” the lawyer said.
The struggle began when a few ultraconservative students started a series of protests and sit-ins over demands for a prayer room and for the right of women to wear niqabs (full-face veils) inside the university’s classrooms. Kazdaghli and the rest of the administration said that the niqabs should not be worn because of security concerns. Other professors say they need to know who their students are and need to prevent cheating. Female students who want to wear the niqab say that to ban it constricts their religious freedom.
Six students at the University of Manouba were disciplined for wearing the niqab.
On March 6, 2012, two niqab-wearing women entered Kazdaghli’s office. He said that the women attempted to destroy his books and papers. He reacted by pushing them out of his office and reporting the incident to the local police.
The two women sued the dean, accusing him of “violence committed by an official while carrying out his duties,” a charge which could put him in prison for up to five years. Kazdaghli denied the accusation, and he and his supporters argue that the case has served as a test of the moderate Islamist government’s willingness to contain creeping religious extremism.
The verdict has been repeatedly delayed for about seven months.
“We waited a long time before a verdict to acquit the dean,” said Fadila Uwaini ,a professor in the faculty of arts and humanities at the University of Manouba, and the professors’ representative in a university council. “Teachers, administrators and students did not give up. We decided to gather every week in huge numbers in front of the court to confirm the freedom of the judiciary, especially when it comes to the freedom and independence of the university.”
The dean’s prosecution has been widely criticized by professors, civil-society groups and some opposition parties, who accuse the government, led by Islamist party Ennahda, of seeking to Islamicize society.
“The whole case was against the university, which stood against the phenomenon of Salafism in the university and against the niqab on campus,” said Khaled Shaaban, a professor of German language and culture at the university. He added that the university has the right to prevent the wearing of the niqab and students sign a commitment to respect the university’s decision before enrolling. No law has been passed permitting the wearing of the niqab in classrooms and, for now, universities are generally believed to have the power to decide on the right to wear veils.
Manouba University, which has some 13,000 students, is considered by some to be a left-wing bastion in Tunisia and is located outside the capital of Tunis.
Rabaa Ben Achour, the president of the Tunisian Association for the Defense of University Values, stressed the importance of protecting the independence of universities. “The university is a small model of society as a whole,” she said. “You cannot open the door to extremists and let them express their views through violence.”