Tunisia debate turns personal: 'Pray more and turn down that Metallica'
Tensions between Tunisia's secularists and newly empowered Islamists are playing between brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, as the country drafts a new constitution.
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Mr. Bourguiba, his predecessor, considered Islam a barrier to building a modern state. During three decades in power he banned the headscarf and polygamy, expanded women’s rights, and imprisoned Islamists.Skip to next paragraph
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Why a mother worries about her headscarf-wearing daughter
For Mrs. Bennajeh, then growing up, Bourguiba's brand of modernity was a welcome contrast to the endless "no"s of her conservative mother.
“That I could go out of the house alone, that I could go to the cinema – these things that Bourguiba supported, my mother considered shameful,” she says, now facing the opposite battle with her own daughter.
In 2009, Ms. Mkaddem’s interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led her to Islamic piety.
Told to leave home by her mother after donning the Islamic headscarf, Mkaddem stayed for a month with an uncle before returning home and reconciling. Later, police near the college where she studies English language and literature forced her to sign a promise to remove her headscarf.
“It reinforced the way I felt about religion and politics,” she says. “I was sure we were in an evil system.”
Bennajeh sees danger not in secular policies, but in conservative Islam, which she fears could one day threaten her daughter’s freedoms.
“Those who want sharia think women aren’t capable,” she says. “There are men in Tunis who want to shut women in the home.”
“But we’re not asking for sharia, just inspiration by sharia,” protests Mkaddem, who argues that Islam protects women’s dignity.
Any use of sharia as a basis for civil law is complex, says Slim Laghmani, a law professor at Carthage University, near Tunis. Sharia must first be distilled by scholars into regulations called fiqh.
And even once Tunisia's new constitution is written, elected lawmakers will have considerable influence over how it is applied.
“A text is meaningless until it’s interpreted,” says Prof. Laghmani. “He who can impose his interpretation will give the text meaning.”
Elections expected for next year that will shape the new government could thus do as much as Tunisia's constitution to determine the country's future, he says.
Please pray more – and turn down that Metallica
Those eligible to vote include not only young people like Mkaddem, but others like recent university graduate Aymen Ben Abderrahmen.
While Mkaddem thinks the state should move closer to religion, Mr. Ben Abderrahmen wants it to go the other way.
“We can have a secular state in practice without making people fear that their religion is under attack,” he says. At the same time, “restrictions on religion should be abolished.”
Last month a judge sentenced two men to seven-year jail terms for publishing writings and cartoons critical of Islam. The judge cited laws that outlawed offense to public morals under former President Ben Ali.
Ben Abderrahmen was part of a large demonstration outside the Interior ministry on Jan. 14, 2011, that was crucial in prompting Ben Ali to flee the country that night.
As Ben Abderrahmen watched police beat protesters amid billowing tear-gas, his 20-year-old sister, Ons, sat at home and wished she was with him.
“When Ben Ali left I thought, ‘At last! I can live my religion without anyone bothering me’,” says Ons, who began wearing the Islamic headscarf two years ago and supports a state based on Islam.
But whereas Mkaddam met resistance at home for the same decision, Ms. Ben Abderrahmen has found acceptance.
When Ms. Ben Abderrahmen began wearing Islamic clothes, her brother helped buy them. Sometimes she asks him to pray more – and to turn down his Metallica in the Tunis house they share with their parents and a younger brother.
“And then he jokes that he’s going to hell and will see Metallica there live in concert,” she says with a smile.
Aymen Ben Abderrahmen is planning to launch an online forum to discuss the new constitution. His sister, a computer science student, plans to help.
“This debate will never finish,” he says. “I can still see people on Facebook and on the street talking about it.”
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