A high-profile legal battle between a Tunisian university dean and Islamist students ended last week in victory for the dean.
Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Humanities at the University of Manouba, was accused last year of slapping two female students wearing the niqab, or full-face veil. He was acquitted last Thursday. The two students had been convicted of attacking the property of another and interfering with a public servant carrying out his duties. They were given suspended two-month sentences.
The incidents started on March 2012, when one of the women wearing the niqab raised a complaint against the dean for slapping her. Meanwhile Dean Kazdaghli denied the charges, saying that the two female students had ransacked his office.
Kazdaghli said in a news conference after the trial, "Tunisian justice acquitted me," adding, "I am relieved that this story has ended; it's a relief for Tunisia, because the attempts to attack the modernity of the university have failed”.
If convicted, Kazdaghli could have faced a possible five-year jail term of "violence committed by a public employee while performing his duties,” reported AFP.
Last year, demonstrations and sit-ins conducted by Islamists students took place at the university campus opposing the ban on wearing the niqab inside the university and demanding a prayer place inside the university. These ultraconservative students argue that they “were defending their freedom of belief and their right to wear the niqab”. Kazdaghli who has been a vocal defender of the institution's ban on the niqab argued that seeing students' faces is a "pedagogical necessity."
“Even though a small number of Muslim women wear the niqab, they still should have the right to wear the niqab and study,” said Bilel Chaouachi, a student who participated in the sit-in last year to defend student’s rights to wear the niqab.
On many occasions, the dean accused “religious extremists” of wanting to take over the university. He said that “fundamentalists” accused him of being a "Zionist" and "an enemy of God.” The dean is a researcher specializing in minorities’ rights and Jewish rights in particular.
According to Tunisian law, each university has a right to set their own guidelines for the wearing of the niqab and religious activity in general on campus. However the issue has become so divisive that Tunisia's minister of higher education, a member of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party, recently called on administrations to allow students wearing the niqab to sit for examinations "until the question is studied in more depth." He said he might ask the country's constitutional assembly to vote on the matter.
The case at Manouba University soon became a public opinion case for symbolizing the tension between Islamists and secularists. Many of Khazdaghli’s supporters criticized the Ennahdha party and accused it of siding with ultraconservative Islamists which according to them “threaten the country’s modernity.”