Islamists demanding segregated lessons and full-face veils for women students besieged a university building near the Tunisian capital yesterday and held students and professors hostage, the head of one of the university’s faculties said.
Since it ousted its leader in the first of the “Arab Spring” revolutions earlier this year, Tunisia has seen mounting tensions between secularists who have traditionally held power and Islamists whose influence has been growing.
“I am being held hostage in my office with some students and academic staff by certain students with beards,” said Habib Kasdeli, head of the Humanities and Literature Faculty at the Manouba university near Tunis.
“They are Salafists who want to impose enrolment for girls wearing the niqab (full-face veil), a prayer room on the campus and no gender mixing in lessons,” he told the Shems-FM private radio station.
“This group, which is made up more than 40 people, has forbidden us from leaving my office until we accept their demands,” he added.
Tunisian television broadcast footage of young, bearded Islamists, on mattresses in the faculty office.
Tunisia ousted its autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January with a wave of protests that inspired revolts in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
In the country’s first democratic election, Tunisians last month elected a coalition government led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party. That party has promised not to impose strict Muslim rules on society and to respect women’s rights.
But a small contingent of Salafists, hardline Islamists not associated with Ennahda, have been seeking to implement their purist interpretation of Islam and overturn secularist laws.
That has alarmed Tunisian secularists. They have dominated the political landscape since independence from France half a century ago and now say they fear their freedoms will be undermined.
Early last month, Islamists stormed a university in the city of Sousse, about 150 km (93 miles) south of the capital, after it refused to enrol a woman wearing a niqab.