Hijab makes a return in Tunisia

Something really wonderful happened outside the Tunisian Embassy in London the other day as a crowd of us gathered to continue the demand for justice in the people’s revolution.

I was standing next to a sister, and, with tears in her eyes she revealed she had been inside the embassy that morning to get passports for herself and her family. Her face looked vaguely familiar but I could not remember where we had met previously.

Just a few weeks ago she would not have been allowed to put one foot over the threshold but this time she was welcomed like a long lost daughter and given the red carpet treatment by the embassy staff – one even asked if she wanted to meet the Ambassador.

The more she talked the more I knew that we had met previously, but where?

Then we began speculating about the deposed dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and his truly awful wife Leila, who, we now know thanks to Wikileaks, fancied her chances of becoming the next leader of Tunisia when her ageing husband either stood down or expired.

We both laughed at the irony of the location of their current bolt-hole … Saudi Arabia, The Land of the Two Holy Mosques, and wondered how Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi were coping with hearing the athan five times a day.

They had banned the athan from being played on state television, shunned fasting during Ramadan and dismissed the hijab as being a foreign import and not part of the Tunisian culture.

Let’s just say they made it up as they went along and if they wanted fatwas they would wheel out their tame and obliging scholars for dollars.

Ben Ali, a brute of a man who made words and phrases like torture, detention without trial, political and religious persecution commonplace in Tunisia, is also credited with ripping off the hijabs from the heads of Muslim women. He banned them from wearing their scarves in schools, hospitals and universities and other public places.

He saw that the Holy Quran was banned and desecrated in the cages and dungeons where prisoners of conscience are beaten if they dared to pray outside of allotted times.

His brutal regime brought in happy clappy clerics whose narcotic-style preachings in praise of Ben Ali and his corrupt government certainly had the desired effect … it drove God-fearing worshippers out of the mosques.

No wonder the Muslim youth no longer clamored to get into masjids on Fridays to listen to these khateebs who spent half the khutbah praising the President and his followers.

To our Christian friends, put it this way – can you imagine sitting in a church pew listening to some vicar or priest urging you to thank God for Tony Blair, George W Bush or Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney? Exactly!

My sister and I both wondered how Leila would view having to wear a black abaya every time she steps outside her new home. I’m sure the Saudi religious police will be on hand to give her some encouragement.

Of all the places in the world those two had probably expected to end up I think it’s a fair bet Saudi was nowhere near the top of their list as they boarded the flight from Tunisia.

In fact what wouldn’t I have given to see the expressions on their faces as the pilot delivered the bad news. Sorry, we can’t get clearance for Paris, New York, Monaco or Geneva but how does Jeddah sound?

It was Ben Ali’s barbaric actions and abuse of the most basic human rights which prompted me to first go and stand outside the Tunisian Embassy in London way back in November 2006 and protest in defense of our Tunisian sisters … and Islam.

This man and his godless wife despised the religion of their birth so much and everything it represented that they did their best to turn the country in to a secular state.

Did they do it to please themselves or the western powers which courted them and pretended to be their best ever friends?

I remember in February 2009 driving through Tunisia with the Viva Palestina convoy encountering literally hundreds of Ben Ali’s henchmen who did everything in their power to stop us from praying and attending Friday prayers.

The horrified expressions on their faces when we stopped our vehicles in the middle of the road and prayed in the street is something I will remember forever.

I recounted the tale to the sister outside the embassy and again we both laughed at the ultimate irony Ben Ali and the light-fingered Leila (she is reported to have looted 1.5 tons of gold as she fled) were now languishing in Saudi.

How poignant, having been shunned by their fickle friends in the West, it was Muslims who came to their rescue. Forgiveness is a major element in Islam and while it is far too early for Tunisians to even begin to think about that F-word, the ex-president and his wife should be grateful that some Muslims are prepared to show them the sort of mercy Ben Ali and Leila could never show their own people.

Now that he, in particular, has time to reflect on the brutalization of our hijab-wearing sisters, practicing brothers and human rights campaigners, I wonder if he will discover the beauty of real Islam and not the distorted, diluted version he tried to force on his people?

I turned to the sister outside the embassy and wondered out loud if Leila will ever discover the beauty of the hijab. The words were barely out of my mouth when I suddenly recognized this woman.

We had first met in 2006, outside the Tunisian Embassy in London, at a protest. She told me in graphic detail of her detention, abuse and torture at the hands of Ben Ali’s thugs.

I will never forget her dramatic words back then as she said in a shaky voice: “I came to London with my hijab still in my pocket.” I remember being moved to tears by her story, one of many countless Tunisian sisters can tell and no doubt will over the coming months.

And now she is planning to return but with her head held high and wearing her hijab with pride.

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Yvonne Ridley

British journalist Yvonne Ridley is the West European Asst. Director-General of the International Muslim Women's Union. 

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  • I dont believe the Quran was ever desecrated anywhere in Tunisia & Ben Ali never said not to fast Ramadan.(that was Bougreiba).where are you coming up with these things?

    I’m not a fan of any dictator, but you probably dont even live anywhere in the Middle East or know what religon can do! Come to Egypt see what the Salafist Wahabi movement has done to our society, it has ruined it…All they spew is Hate & intollerance & many Sheikhs in Friday prayers talk about nothing useful they just encourage hating Jews & talk in a bad sneaky way about our christian Egyptian population. Come see how much religion is PUSHED on you now in Egypt, no respect for privacy or personal views…you dont knwo what your talking about…..

    Lets just hope the Tunisians are smarter than to let some theocratical salafist backward movement takeover their country as we fear in Egypt every single day! True Islam is great & merciful & can help us progress, but the Salafi Wahabi influence which many many Religious Muslims try to push on people is nothing but a backward death trap that will ruin a country and drive it back to the dark ages !

    • LT

      You believe in the makeup world your mind created, as evident from your thoughts you are not a good Muslim, you would impose the same dictatorian rules if you had power. Your ideas are pure mockery, we are religious and at the same time more tolerant than you are. Go to hell with your damned Mubarak. The author was Christian years ago, she knows better than your delusional mind

    • SOA

      @ Mr. Tarek,
      Do you know what you are saying? tell me what Muslims (ie.salafis) should do now? like you they just see how Jews and Christians are doing? Muslims like you are forcing there women’s to reject Hijab what do you think they say “welcome” like you. You said we don’t see in Middle East did you ever tried to see what Jews are doing in Palestine. what Christians had done in Iraq and Afghanistan? Before entering in Iraq they told us Iraq had Weapons of Mass distraction but my question is where are those weapons? To kill Osama Bin Laden they entered in Afghanistan but kill thousands of innocent people there(more than twin tower). And what Muslims(ie Salafis ) done they are forcing muslims to become religious, its became wrong to you. i think you are like Ben Ali in the name you are a Muslim but in reality you are a follower of Christian and Jews. Shame on Muslims like You.

    • samsonsdee

      The problem lie within our Ummah of today, we want ease in our religion. If you study the way of Prophet Muhammad and his companions and how they fought for our religion today, you would not be griping about the salafia and how they are pushing intolerance.

      Again we are too tolerant, we do not worship as we should nor do we follow the way of our beloved Rasool. We have too much ease today, we pray when we want and as quick as we can without first preparing ourselves properly for the prayer. We go to Allah(swt) in pray but will it be accepted?

      Our lives are so busy with things that are unislamic we have no time for Allah(swt). Our prayers are to short, our wudu not performed properly, our supplication are possibly meaningless. But we still expect for Allah(swt) to grant us the highest of the paradise, and let us slip by with all our sins! NOT!

      Today make it the day that we really think about what we are saying when we make our salats, supplications and as we sit in our thoughts. Let them be pure, our salats focus on Allah(swt) and our supplications with tears and reverence. Let us begin today to really be a slave to our Rabb and less a slave to society. ameen.

      Our heartbeat was numbered before we exited the womb, our number could be up today. Think about it…

      • alamin

        I appreciate your sincerity but I dont think it is correct to sit in judgement or impose on anyones method of praying to Allah. In my opinion being a true Muslim has very little to do with how pray. If your niyat (intention) is true, your do daily acts of kindness and generosity and show tolerance towards your fellow beings, your prayers will be accepted by Almighty Allah even if you offer them standing on your head.

  • Gopal

    See what islam has done to pakistan (leave alone afghanistan)! Murderers are showered with rose petals for killing a good liberal man! by lawyers of all people! Killers/ plotters of mumbai massacre never get prosecuted or go scotfree to spew further hatred against kafirs (sic)
    yes spare a thought for non muslims and their persecution and brutalisation

    • Indian


      What do you says about Narender Modi and the strategies and Planning used my them to massacre the muslim community in Gujrat. And they are still in power. Look at your own country before going outside.

    • LT

      Yes, and look what your much loved liberal West did. Insulting Prophet, desecrating and burning Koran and so on. You cannot find one single Muslim insulting Jesus or desecrating Bible, because we accept them as prophet and holy book as well. Slap them on the face and expect a silence in return? Nonsensical. Liberalism must respect religion, that is the way. Liberty has limits. 160 people were killed in Mumbai, let me ask how many innocent Muslims were killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and long-standing Kashmir, millions of them by your liberal forces! Do not bring up your nonsense here and stop blaming Islam.

  • Serkan

    Be quiet Tarek you Hosni Mubarak loving, western heel kissing traitor. Egypt goes further and further down the secular route every day, how many Muslims find themselves tortured for fearing God and not men like the rest of you cowards. Yes, maybe you would prefer that Tunisia embraced Obamas choice, a CIA funded Kaffir who will glory in secular sciences and mock the name of Allah and his Prophet s.a.w..no chance, Islam will rise above the Munafiqs..how can you be a Muslim without being religious?, phew, why not announce your apostasy online if you don’t like Islam?

  • Dawud Beale

    Sister you have to be one of the greatest activists in Islam of our times. I really have a lot of time for your works. I really like the fact that while everyone else was busy attacking saudi (even though their efforts didnt benefit anti islamic elements in any way) that you were fair and said that this was an act of mercy and that inshAllah it might lead to them appreciating and moving Islam. I really think you have been very fair in this article and also shown support to teh great fact that our sisters may now be free to wear their hijabs etc which is of course great news. Keep up the good work sister, I am an english convert brother also and am happy to see converts like yourself from my homecountry make a difference for the muslim community and like the fact that you speak the truth with fairness and justice and compassion and this is exactly what being a muslim entails and so I completely salute you for your efforts.

    To those negative posters who have nothing positive to say, 1 Tarek Salah, yvonne never endorsed any interpretation of Islam, she just pointed out some valid points, if you dont like salafis operating in your country then really and truely that is your problem, maybe they wont like other interpretations changing teh course of the country either but you’ll just have to put up with it. I dont believe the salafi clerics are calling for violence against any minority countries, I know many salafis very well and they call for peace and while they are strong in their adherence to pure Islam, they dont advocate any violence or use of force, they are strict with niqab etc but so what, why does it bother you how they practice? If anyone has called for any violence then report them, I dont believe the authorities will tolerate that, but as you used the word “sneaky” I presume you are exagerating and that in fact they probabily dont call to intolerance at all and your just blowing things out of proportion due to political/religious bias against salafis

    2 Gopal. Pakistan and Afghanistan are in a mess because they are getting bombed the hell out of by america. Non muslims live peacefully in muslim majority countries all over the world, the only countries where they get seriously persecuted is wherever america sets foot, but then again muslims are persecuted in europe with mosques getting firebombed and muslims get attacked by racists etc, and thats in the so called democratic liberal countries so I dont thin intolerance is just a muslim problem, I think its a human problem that seems to be taking root everywhere and your anti islamic stance probabily wont benefit the situation at all. Are you willing to give credit for example, of muslim rulers building huge churches in muslim lands like qatar?

    • alamin

      I appreciate and agree with your views and analysis of yvonne’s article.

  • Dawud Beale

    Also I’d have to agree with serkan on the issue of not being convinced that egypt is handing down the root that you have claimed, I think I will need to see evidence of this as to my understanding from brothers who I know who studied arabic there, the conditions are quite difficult for practicing muslims

    • john

      Well said. people need to look beyond the popular media to understand the truht.

  • Greg

    Yvonne, it was Habib Bourguiba, the President before Ben Ali, who was strongly against the hijab and who drank orange juice on daytime tv during Ramadan. But he also did more for equal rights than any Arab leader before or since. Another plus is that he used to enjoy humiliating Ghaddafi of Libya

    Serkan, you use insulting words like kaffir (in English, ‘Infidel’) and seem to think that Tarek doesn’t like Islam because he criticises the growing Salafi/Wahabi movement. To disagree with the teachings of this relatively recent movement (250 years old approximately), does that make Tarek a bad Muslim? The very contents of your intolerant message only serves to prove Tarek absolutely right.

  • Now – could it also that the dictatorships and banning the headscarf in Western countries be an attempt to squash Muslims’ religious freedom around the world? Yes – Islamophobia has its uses as “security” and “counter -terrorism” paradigms!

  • Rania

    It’s astonishing to read some of the comments, the article doesn’t discuss the views of the salafists, neither it represents them. It doesn’t refer to the isssue of whether Islam should play a role in the government or no, it’s not implying to whether the Hijab should be imposed on women or not, it is simply talking about the basic right of Tunisian women to wear the Hijab if they choose to, a right that has been denied by the government of Ben Ali. Some replied that it was Bourguiba who banned the Hijab in Tunisia, it is not true, Bourguiba wasn’t a supporter for the Hijab and he supported the right of those who chose to take it off but he never forced Tunisian women not to wear it. It was Ben Ali who implemented policies to force women to abandon the Hijab, it was banned by law to wear the Hijab in public places under his rule, I remember when I was in college in the University of Human and social sciences in Tunis, many of the veiled students were banned from entering the campus wearing a Hijab, I even remember one of my friends was interrogated by the dean and asked to come back to reality if she wants ti finish her studies. Even though I don’t wear the Hijab I felt offended by such thing, it’s an attack on privacy and civil liberty. Women wearing a veil were harrassed everywhere under Ben Ali, my mother and many of women in my family, neighbors… always left at least an inch of their hear uncovered to avoid harrassement by police. One time I was present in the audience in a TV show of a certain “Lotfi Bahri”, one of his guests was wearing a Hijab (she was supposed to talk about the traditional food of her region), as he started interviewing her he noticed her Hijab, out of the sudden he stopped and he started yelling at her and at his stuff saying “thibbou tbasiwna” meaning you want to put us in trouble, and they forced her to take it off if she wanted to finish the interview, I remember how embarressed and humiliated the woman was, as was most of the audience who the majority of them had their hear done and uncovered. So in my opinion the article is right on topic.