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IdentifierCreatedClassificationOrigin
06TUNIS2679 2006-11-01 09:48:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Tunis
Cable title:  

WOMENS' "NGO": LESS HIJAB, MORE BEN ALI

Tags:   PGOV KDEM PHUM SOCI TS 
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1. (C) SUMMARY. A recent meeting of a major pro-GOT Tunisian
women's NGO to discuss Tunisian values turned into a rally in
support of Ben Ali and his policies. While ostensibly a
meeting in support of secular and moderate values, the
October 27 event organized by the National Union of the
Tunisian Woman (UNFT) was designed to support Ben Ali's
stance against the wearing of the hijab. The ugly side of
Tunisian politics was revealed when senior UNFT officials,
including the president, demanded that all women in
attendance remove their veils. END SUMMARY.



2. (SBU) On October 27, PolOff attended the National Union of
Tunisian Woman's (UNFT) "big meeting" on "The Tunisian
Woman's Lasting Adherence to the Values of Moderation,
Openness and Diligence." Over 500 members and supporters,
who had been bussed in from every governorate in Tunisia,
attended the event at a hotel in a suburb of Tunis. While
theoretically a private women's NGO, the UNFT is known for
its strong support of the GOT, and the event turned out to be
more of a political rally than a lecture. The UNFT hung red
and purple banners (the color of the ruling Democratic
Constitutional Rally (RCD) party) in the streets around the
hotel supporting GOT's criticism of the hijab (reftel).
Signs proclaiming "No to backwardness! Yes to moderation!"
and "Yes to challenging every attempt to divide" were hung
around the meeting room. Organizers distributed picket signs
with similar slogans for attendees to display and called out
instructions for how to arrange them for the best visual
effect. At one point, a woman stood at the podium to coach
attendees on the verses of the event-specific songs, such as
"The Personal Status Code is against all reactionary
political movements."



3. (SBU) Perhaps not realizing that the hijab was the target
of the event, approximately five percent of attendees were
veiled in everything from modern scarfs to traditional
kerchiefs. As they arrived, a female member of the UNFT
board of directors and an unidentified man circulated the
crowd to confront these women. Utilizing techniques from
whispering in their ears to tugging at veils and verbally
abusing the women, the two individuals managed to convince
several women to remove their veils. Pulling the kerchief of
a rural woman off, the man proclaimed, "Look how pretty you
are!" while the woman lamented "I'm naked!"



4. (SBU) With each successful unveiling, it seemed another
veiled woman arrived. Thus, when UNFT President Aziza Hatira
arrived, she proceeded straight to the podium and began to
berate veiled members of the audience. "No Tunisian or
Egyptian or English veils!" said Hatira, as she pointed to
individual women and called on them to remove their veils.
Going beyond the GOT's usual arguments that the modern veil
is an import that is foreign to Tunisian values, Hatiri said
that even the traditional Tunisian sefsari (an ivory-colored
fabric that is wrapped around the head and body) was to be
removed. In a demonstration of Tunisians' unwillingness to
disobey instructions, all of the offending women ultimately
removed their veils.



5. (SBU) Once the veils were removed, signs distributed and
chants practiced, Hatira began her speech, which focused on
the advancements Tunisian woman have achieved thanks to the
Personal Status Code. The code, enacted by former president
Habib Bourguiba in 1956, granted Tunisian women unique rights
in the Arab world, including the right to divorce and the
banning of polygamy. Hatira also predictably praised the
gains women have realized thanks to President Zine el Abidine
Ben Ali. On several occasions, the crowd spontaneously
erupted in cheers for Ben Ali, leading a woman sitting next
to PolOff to note, "See how his real supporters stand up and
applaud while those who aren't such great supporters only
clap politely?"



6. (C) COMMENT: Like other quasi-NGO cheerleaders, the UNFT
was keen to demonstrate to the GOT its loyalty to official
policies. Perhaps in response to a recent RCD meeting with
NGOs on combatting the spread of the hijab (reftel), Hatira's
speech was a predictable summary of the GOT's arguments
against the veil. However, the event was unusual in that
veiled women attended the event without realizing they were
the target of the discussion. While some appeared to have
been rounded up and bussed in to attend an event about which
they knew little, others clearly appeared to be active
members who chose to veil. The aggressive way the UNFT
leadership chose to denounce seemingly pro-GOT veiled
attendees further demonstrates the GOT's confused approach
about the topic. END COMMENT.
BALLARD