Tunisia Cracks Down On The Niqab After Terror Attack

Tunisia Cracks Down On The Niqab After Terror Attack

After last weekend’s terrorist attacks that left four dead, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry has taken to Facebook to announce that it is cracking down on the niqab.

Proponents of heightened surveillance suggest that jihadist men use the full-body garment and face veil to disguise themselves while traveling, especially when being pursued by police. One alleged male jihadist was captured by police in mid-February, despite the face veil that was intended to hide his identity.

Undeterred by recent Facebook movements in favor of a flat-out niqab prohibition, the Interior Ministry has stopped short of declaring the garment illegal.

Still, many questions remain, though they are not new. The niqab emerged as a major identity marker following Tunisia’s 2011 revolution. The following school year, university students famously demanded the unprecedented right to wear the niqab during class. Some Tunisian professors, unable to imagine teaching a student whose face they could not see, prevented niqab-wearing students from taking exams as their identity allegedly remained unverifiable.

So the details of the increased surveillance announced this week will likely be worked out very slowly. For example, how will the Tunisian security forces “verify” the identity of those wearing the niqab? Will they employ police women to stop niqab-wearers in the street, asking them to lift their face veils and confirm their identities? Will a special “private area” — such as the back of a car — be used to allow women, the overwhelming majority of niqab-wearers, to show their faces in absolute privacy?

Saddened that تونس #Tunisia is to control #niqab and #burka... I stand with my covered brothers and sisters. Covering up is #liberation

— Burka in Belfast (@Queer_Burka) February 19, 2014

Despite the surprising support of some human rights figures and conservative Islamists, others have received this “security measure” with skepticism. In a video published on a conservative Salafi website, Tunisian lawyer Anouar Awled "Ali, declared, “Today they prohibit the niqab, tomorrow the hijab headscarf, and the day after, prayer itself.”

The same divisions that have longed plagued the so-called “Islamist block” of Tunisian voters will likely be exacerbated by the new technocratic government’s attempts to deal with serious terrorism threats, widely believed to be the result of the Islamist party’s previously ‘lax attitude’ towards extremism.

A woman in a niqab — Photo: Bernard Gagnon

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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