The faculty of arts, letters and humanities at the University of Manouba, just outside Tunis, the capital, has been for almost a year now one of the flashpoints of the role of religion in public life in ‘post-revolutionary’ Tunisia.
There was a crackdown on religious expression and practice under the Ben Ali regime, where female students and staff women were forbidden to wear the hijab inside university campuses. As for the guys, no long beards were allowed.
The Faculty has provided the backdrop for numerous bouts of an ongoing dispute between secularists and ultra-conservative students, also referred to as Salafis.
Having a prayer room and allowing female students to sit for exams wearing the niqab are some of the Salafis students’ demands that weren’t welcomed by the administrative body of the Faculty led by Dean Habib Kazdaghli.
On various occasions the Dean has appeared on state TV and radio concerning the dispute. He justifies his opposition to allowing religious observation to enter the University on the grounds that it impedes the communication process essential for education.
Yesterday, July 5 Mr. Kazdaghli appeared before a court for allegedly slapping a female student wearing a niqab.
The young female Salafi student filed a lawsuit against the Dean claiming he had assaulted her in his office. Mr. Kazdaghli denies this, maintaining that he was only defending himself against an uninvited agitated student who burst into his office.
The Dean said that the student who lodged a complaint against him was expelled from his faculty for six months because she had refused to take off her niqab.
Kazdaghli is being charged with “violence perpetrated by a civil servant in the course of his duties,” a crime that carries a penalty of sixteen days to three years in prison and a fine of between $37 and $300.
Kazdaghli has the support of university staff and trade unionists who have spoken out against putting him on trial. A committee that defends university values and academic freedoms has issued a statement saying Kazdaghli “is not the guilty party, he is the victim of aggression”.
Yesterday’s brief session of the trial was adjourned until October 25 at the request of the defence.