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?
— 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