Last week, on Tunis’s Mohamed V Avenue, I saw a procession of student demonstrators who were carrying several Tunisian flags at their head. The national flag here, incidentally, features a white crescent and star (representing peace, Arab unity and the five pillars of Islam) on a red background (representing the blood of past Tunisian martyrs).
What, I wondered, were the students protesting against?
It transpired that they were up in arms, metaphorically speaking, about an incident at the Arts and Humanities faculty of the city’s Manouba University the previous day. Since the Tunisian Revolution, the campus has been the scene of protests by Salafist activists about the university’s policy of not allowing female students to cover their faces with the niqab, the Islamic veil.
In this latest incident, a Salafist protestor pulled down the Tunisian flag at the faculty and replaced it with a black flag bearing the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. A non-Salafist student called Khaoula Rachidi, who tried to stop him removing the national flag, got shoved off a wall for her efforts.
This was filmed, however, and the footage was widely shown in the media, causing an outcry among nationalist, secular and left-leaning Tunisians – politicians, journalists and trade unionists as well as students. Here is an item I found on Youtube that pays tribute to the gutsy Khaoula Rachidi. You can see her doing her flag-protecting stuff 30 seconds in.
The Salafists – who, when I see them on the streets of Tunis, are usually comprised of fat, scowling blokes with beards, robes and sneakers – complain that on university campuses in Western countries, like the USA and Britain, female students are allowed to wear whatever they want, including the all-concealing niqab. So why shouldn’t the same rights be given to students at Manouba?
Well, that’s a fair point. But I assume that, for the sake of consistency in their arguments, the Salafists have now embraced all Western notions of freedom. For example, the notion that, in the daytime during Ramadan, you’re free to serve food to non-believers without the threat of getting your restaurant burned down by fat, scowling blokes with beards, robes and sneakers. Or that you’re free, as a woman, to walk around a provincial town with your hair uncovered without the threat of being harassed by fat, scowling blokes with beards, robes and sneakers. Or that you’re free to broadcast the French-Iranian movie Persepolis without the threat of having your TV station attacked by fat, scowling blokes with beards, robes and sneakers. Etcetera.
Part of me finds it a little sad that it took the removal of a flag to trigger this backlash against the Salafists, when pretty much all their bullying and intolerance have merited a backlash – a long overdue one. But perhaps my thinking here is influenced by my background. I’m a citizen of the United Kingdom, where, apart from the Protest community in Northern Ireland and the supporters of Glasgow Rangers Football Club in Scotland, I suspect to most people the national flag does not mean a great deal emotionally.
Indeed, these days, the Union Jack seems more of a corporate logo than anything else. Sometimes an effective logo – adorning the tail-fins of British Airways planes, or Noel Gallagher’s guitar, or Roger Moore’s parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me. Sometimes less effective – think of that mini-dress-cum-tea-towel worn by the Spice Girls’ Geri Halliwell at the 1997 Brit Awards, or basically anything on sale at a London tourist stall.
But unlike the brand that is the Union Jack, the Tunisian flag seems to mean something important to people here. In the opening paragraph I said its red background symbolised the blood of Tunisia’s martyrs. Those martyrs include the people who died fourteen months ago, in the uprising against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s corrupt and cruel regime. I imagine the removal of the flag at Manouba University last week wasn’t just seen as a desecration of a national emblem, but as a desecration of their memory.
These musings put me in mind of something I saw on a Tunis street on January 14th last year, the day that Tunisia’s revolutionaries forced Ben Ali to flee the country. (Though at the time, it wasn’t obvious that the uprising would succeed and the ordinary people who’d taken to the streets in protest faced brutal retaliatory action if the regime stood its ground.) In my notebook I wrote:
“Coming back along Avenue de la Liberte (near to the mosque, where the tramlines cross the road), I encountered a long and frankly ragged procession of chanting men and teenagers, heading towards Habib Bourguiba Avenue. A young guy was walking a few yards ahead of the rest, holding aloft a Tunisian flag, then there was the main mass of marchers, and then there were stragglers. The pedestrians who’d been heading in the opposite direction politely herded themselves to the side, into Avenue de Lyon and alongside the Costa Nostra Salon de The, to allow them to pass…
“Hobbling along at the back of the procession was a figure I don’t think I’ll ever forget. He was a little old man, little more than five feet tall… He was chanting as he limped along with one hand raised in a clenched fist, and a Tunisian flag hanging down his back, one corner of it tucked in behind his shirt collar.
“I hope he didn’t get hurt later on.”