March 02. 2009
TUNIS // One evening last year, a computer technician called Afef switched on her television, tuned to an Islamic programme and felt her world suddenly change.
“Something awoke in me,” said Afef, 27, who did not wish to give her surname. For the first time, she resolved to wear the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, “even though that’s difficult in Tunisia”.
Next week women around the world will observe International Women’s Day, honouring feminist advances of the 20th century. That resonates strongly in Tunisia, where women’s rights have long been a point of national pride.
That pride has led the government to crack down heavily on the hijab, called an “odious rag” by modern Tunisia’s founder, Habib Bourguiba. Authorities consider the headscarf a sign of creeping Islamic extremism, while feminists see male domination.
But for women such as Afef, it is primarily a matter of religious freedom.
Tunisia’s secularism owes much to Mr Bourguiba, who ruled the country for three decades after it gained independence from France in 1956. He considered women’s emancipation central to building a modern state. Among the titles engraved proudly on the bronze doors of his mausoleum is “Liberator of Women”.
Often, that has meant liberation from tradition, which Mr Bourguiba believed was holding Tunisia back. Under his rule, a new family code was enacted that gave women equality with men in key areas, and Islamic schools and courts were shut down.
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