Tunisian teacher becomes symbol of resistance to bigotry
Tunis - Faiza Souissi faced an angry crowd when she arrived at Oqba Ibn Nafaa primary school for the first day of class. Souissi, who had been a teacher at the Sfax school in southern Tunisia for years, stood accused of being an “atheist” intent on spreading dangerous ideas to her pupils. None of the parents or protesters had ever met her face to face.
As the uproar grew, Souissi’s colleagues sheltered her in a school office before police arrived to escort her home.
The crowd alleged that Souissi was virulently anti-Muslim and frequently shut her classroom windows to prevent pupils from hearing Friday prayers. They accused her of comparing the sound of the Islamic prayer ritual to a “donkey’s bray.”
Souissi denied the allegations, which had been spread by radical Islamists.
“I teach from 9-12 [noon] and we know that Friday prayers start in the afternoon,” Souissi told a local television station. “It is true that I’m against the hijab and I feel bad when I see small girls at primary schools wearing that piece of cloth. That said, I had never asked them to remove the hijab.”
Individuals returned to harassing her despite a police warning. They were led by a local trade union activist known to be a member of the Islamist Ennahda party, which is a partner in Tunisia’s coalition government led by Nidaa Tounes.
Souissi, a feminist activist with the Association of Democratic Women, became a symbol for the struggle of personal freedoms in the Maghreb. While Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia officially protect freedom of religion and consciousness, religious minorities and those with different cultural views often face discrimination.
Following the demonstration, police in Sfax arrested three individuals, including a woman who allegedly took the teacher’s mobile phone to find “incriminating material.”
Tunisia’s trade union, Education Ministry, main human rights groups and many members of parliament voiced support for Souissi.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who recently became the first Arab head of state to publicly support equal inheritance and marriage rights for women — a taboo issue for many Muslims — was reportedly shocked by the teacher’s treatment. He lent her support in a televised interview.
Many of the country’s intellectuals condemned the anti-Souissi campaign, with civic group Tunisian Association for High Quality Education urging politicians and intellectuals to rally behind the teacher.
“Attacking the intellectuals and the elites was the first step to imposing a totalitarian regime,” the organisation said. “Stirring religious emotions against intellectuals is an old game to marginalise intellectuals.”
Journalist Sofiene Ben Hamida said Souissi “represents a symbol of resistance against the project of the Islamists and that is why they targeted her. The fear is that now the schools of the republic would be transformed into religious schools.”
Religious intolerance is not a problem just in Tunisia, however. Prejudice against Christians, Bahais and Ahmadis as well as sexual minorities, is common in the region.
In Morocco, Salafists took to the streets in August to protest a government proposal to allow women to practise as bailiffs, arguing that the move is “un-Islamic.”
While Morocco’s 2011 constitution, drafted after the “Arab spring”-inspired demonstrations, guarantees freedom of religion, the reality is more complex
Foreign Christians — the majority of whom are from sub-Saharan Africa — and the country’s tiny Jewish community — about 2,500 people — practise their faiths openly. However, native Moroccans who identify as Christian are frequently subject to intolerance.
Moroccan Rachid Hamami, a Christian, said he was shocked by how fellow Moroccans treat him.
“I hope that ordinary Moroccans can be open to other religions and cultures, not to embrace them because believing in a religion is personal,” Hamami said. “Openness to other religions and cultures broadens our minds and helps us to avoid hate and violence towards people who are different from us.”
Jawad Mabrouk, a psychiatrist who has written about Moroccans’ reaction to religious and cultural diversity, concluded that the level of intolerance is similar to that in Algeria and Tunisia.
“Is what is most important to us our faith or our unity as a people and society?” Mabrouk asked. “Is it important that we impose our faith on the traders, the carpenters, nurses, soldiers and others or that they provide us good services?”
“The Moroccan does not comprehend the concept of acceptance of other religions. He is afraid to embrace such a concept. He believes that all Moroccans should be Muslim,” he said.
Algerian writer Amine Zaoui blamed the trend on the advance of religious ideas from the Middle East and the failure of leaders and elites to defend local culture.
“In 1954, we were a colonised state but we had intellectuals and writers, such as Kateb Yacine, Mohammed Dib, Jean Amrouche, Mouloud Mammeri, Mouloud Feraoun,” he said. “In the middle of our independence war in 1957 we had women named Assia Djebar, Hassiba Ben Bouali, Djamila Bouhired, Anna Greki, Myriem Ben who loved freedom, beauty and writing. In 1965, we had beautiful cities named Oran, Annaba, Bejaia, Cherchell.
“Now we have pushed our women from public spaces and murdered our languages and tongues and we are instead listening to speeches by violent preachers.”