- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 22, 2006

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Defying the Islamic clamor in some European countries, Tunisia has served notice that it will continue to oppose any “sectarian dress” incompatible with its tradition.

This includes head scarves for women, who have been reminded that, according to a 25-year-old government directive, they are not to wear the “Islamic scarf” in schools and public buildings. In contrast to neighboring Algeria, the veil has rarely been worn in Tunisia.

Such a form of dress, a senior Tunisian official said, “reminds us of the time when extremists threw acid in the faces of unveiled women. Fundamentalists have totally failed in their attempts at the subversion and manipulation of society in Tunisia.”

Olfa Youssef, a university professor in Tunis, said wearing a veil or scarf “was never one of the pillars of Islam, based on the Koran or the Summa. There is no particular type of dress that has to be worn.”

The statements and other warnings to the population coincide with the end today of the holy month of Ramadan, which usually increases attendance in mosques.

Abdelaziz Ben Dhia, spokesman for the Tunisian president’s office, said, “We don’t accept appearances that are an indication of belonging to one group of people against the rest of society.”

Tunisian officials feel that head scarves, a frequent object of fundamentalist Muslim demands, have nothing to do with religion or national tradition, but represent a political message, which the government opposes. In the days preceding the end of Ramadan, policemen distributed leaflets to women spelling out government policy.

The effort reaffirms Tunisia’s determined secular policy introduced by the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, who also stunned the Arab world by drinking orange juice on television during the fast of Ramadan.

His successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, said at the height of this year’s Ramadan: “We should differentiate between sectarian dress and authentic dress, which is a token of our national identity.”

The Tunisian government appears also to be concerned about the growing chasm between Muslim communities and their Western hosts in a number of European countries, frequently symbolized by a debate over whether veils should be permitted in schools and workplaces.

Such demands, said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, are “a mark of separation,” which makes “other people from outside the [Muslim] community feel uncomfortable.”

He referred particularly to the case of Aisha Azmi, a teaching assistant in England who was suspended for refusing to remove her full-face veil in class.

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