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Hijab Makes a Return in Tunisia

By Yvonne Ridley

Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, January 25, 2011

Something really wonderful happened outside the Tunisian Embassy in London the other day as a crowd of us gathered to continue the demand for justice in the peopleís revolution.

 I was standing next to a sister, and, with tears in her eyes she revealed she had been inside the embassy that morning to get passports for herself and her family. Her face looked vaguely familiar but I could not remember where we had met previously.

Just a few weeks ago she would not have been allowed to put one foot over the threshold but this time she was welcomed like a long lost daughter and given the red carpet treatment by the embassy staff Ė one even asked if she wanted to meet the Ambassador.

 The more she talked the more I knew that we had met previously, but where?

 Then we began speculating about the deposed dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and his truly awful wife Leila who, we now know thanks to Wikileaks, fancied her chances of becoming the next leader of Tunisia when her ageing husband either stood down or expired.

 We both laughed at the irony of the location of their current bolt-hole Ö Saudi Arabia, The Land of the Two Holy Mosques and wondered how Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi were coping with hearing the athan five times a day.

They had banned the athan from being played on state television, shunned fasting during Ramadahn and dismissed the hijab as being a foreign import and not part of the Tunisian culture.

Letís just say they made it up as they went along and if they wanted fatwas they would wheel out their tame and obliging scholars for dollars.

Ben Ali, a brute of a man who made words and phrases like torture, detention without trial, political and religious persecution commonplace in Tunisia, is also credited with ripping off the hijabs from the heads of Muslim women. He banned them from wearing their scarves in schools, hospitals and universities and other public places.

He saw that the Holy Quran was banned and desecrated in the cages and dungeons where prisoners of conscience are beaten if they dared to pray outside of allotted times.

His brutal regime brought in happy clappy clerics whose narcotic-style preachings in praise of Ben Ali and his corrupt government certainly had the desired effect Ö it drove God-fearing worshippers out of the mosques.

No wonder the Muslim youth no longer clamoured to get into masjids on Fridays to listen to these khateebs who spent half the khutbah praising the President and his followers.

To our Christian friends, piut it this way - can you imagine sitting in a church pew listening to some vicar or priest urging you to thank God for Tony Blair, George W Bush or Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheyney? Exactly!

 My sister and I both wondered how Leila would view having to wear a black abaya every time she steps outside her new home. Iím sure the Saudi religious police will be on hand to give her some encouragement.

 Of all the places in the world those two had probably expected to end up I think itís a fair bet Saudi was no where near the top of their list as they boarded the flight from Tunisia.

In fact what wouldnít I have given to see the expressions on their faces as the pilot delivered the bad news. Sorry, we canít get clearance for Paris, New York, Monaco or Geneva but how does Jeddah sound?

It was Ben Aliís barbaric actions and abuse of the most basic human rights which prompted me to first go and stand outside the Tunisian Embassy in London way back in November 2006 and protest in defence of our Tunisian sisters ... and Islam.

 This man and his godless wife despised the religion of their birth so much and everything it represented that they did their best to turn the country in to a secular state.

Did they do it to please themselves or the western powers which courted them and pretended to be their best ever friends?

 I remember in February 2009 driving through Tunisia with the Viva Palestina convoy encountering literally hundreds of Ben Aliís henchmen who did everything in their power to stop us from praying and attending Friday prayers.

The horrified expressions on their faces when we stopped our vehicles in the middle of the road and prayed in the street is something I will remember for ever.

 I recounted the tale to the sister outside the embassy and again we both laughed at the ultimate irony Ben Ali and the light-fingered Leila (she is reported to have looted 1.5 tons of gold as she fled) were now languishing in Saudi.

 How poignant, having been shunned by their fickle friends in the West,  it was Muslims who came to their rescue. Forgiveness is a major element in Islam and while it is far too early for Tunisians to even begin to think about that F-word, the ex-president and his wife should be grateful that some Muslims are prepared to show them the sort of mercy Ben Ali and Leila could never show their own people.

 Now that he, in particular, has time to reflect on the brutalisation of our hijab-wearing sisters, practising brothers and human rights campaigners, I wonder if he will discover the beauty of real Islam and not the distorted, diluted version he tried to force on his people?

 I turned to the sister outside the embassy and wondered out loud if Leila will ever discover the beauty of the hijab. The words were barely out of my mouth when I suddenly recognized this woman.

We had first met in 2006, outside the Tunisian Embassy in London, at a protest. She told me in graphic detail of her detention, abuse and torture at the hands of Ben Aliís thugs.

 I will never forget her dramatic words back then as she said in a shakey voice: ďI came to London with my hijab still in my pocket.Ē I remember being moved to tears by her story, one of many countless Tunisian sisters can tell and no doubt will over the coming months.

 And now she is planning to return but with her head held high and wearing her hijab with pride.

Yvonne Ridley is the European President of the International Muslim Womenís Union


The Peoples' Revolution

By Yvonne Ridley

 The Western media has been somewhat caught out by the rapid demise of one of the most brutal dictators in the world.

 But not to worry, the CIA famously missed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 after working around the clock 24/7 for five decades warning us constantly of the dangers of ignoring the Red Peril. Still, we all have our off days.

 However, when journalists did finally catch up with events in Tunisia it was the plight of the British holidaymakers that grabbed the headlines, not the scores of locals who had been gunned down by government forces.

 So what harrowing tales emerged at the airports as the Brits piled off the planes to freedom?

 BBC Five Live reported the trembling words of a Yorkshireman who said: "We cant believe it. They shut all the bars. Then when we got t'airport duty free were closed!"

 Yes, the BBC went right to the heart of the matter showing once again it had its finger on the pulse of popular opinion.

 That was on Friday and then more dramatic stories emerged the next two days as returning tourists talked about roaming street gangs looting and setting fire to property, and what a grand job the police were doing.

 The so-called "roaming street gangs" were in fact highly organised thugs in the employ of the Tunisian Ministry of Interior on a black propaganda exercise designed to demonise the ordinary people who had finally snapped after being bludgeoned physically and mentally by President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his police.

 Of course most of the Brits were probably unaware they were holidaying in a police state in the first place - it's not mentioned in the brochures ... funny that!

 The reactions of the traumatised tourists prompted one leading Tunisian blogger to Tweet this rather blunt, if not personal piece of advice: "A revolution is ongoing, take your drunk ass somewhere else. Return after elections."

 Now that the 'human interest' angle of the terrorised tourists has been virtually exhausted, the western media is trying to explain the ongoing demonstrations and the cause of the revolution. They even gave the movement a name ... the Jasmine Revolution after the country's national flower. How civilised.

 As far as the media is concerned the revolution erupted thanks to Wikileaks, Twitter and Facebook. What nonsense and what an insult to Tunisians, young and old. The revolution was driven by ordinary people who finally snapped because of the soaring cost of food prices, rising unemployment and the brutality of the police state.

  Many of the revolutionaries were also protesting the dictatorship and lack of real democracy and freedom of speech. Throw in the police brutality, corruption of the ruling families and censorship of the social networks (Youtube was blocked and Facebook accounts and bloggers were regularly hacked) and something was bound to snap.

 We Westerners, hooked up to our Blackberries and iPhones were merely given front row electronic seats from where we could cheer on the real revolutionaries  who physically took to the streets and faced down live ammunition, baton charges and tear gas.

 Now we are told there will be elections in Tunisia in the next 40 days or so and when the people make their choice of government I hope the Western media, Western Governments and the United Nations set aside their usually prejudices and accept the outcome ... unlike what happened in Gaza.

 Even today the population of Gaza is suffering from a collective punishment at the hands of the West for democratically choosing Hamas. But as Ben Ali has now just learned you can't impose your will on people because in the end they will rebel.

 Without outside interference, I am confident the Tunisian people will make the right choices for them and whoever or whichever party they choose we should respect the outcome.

 There is already excited chatter of trade unionists, former opposition parties and a few Islamists forming a coalition government.

 Personally I don't care who takes power as long as those elected are the peoples' choice and they put the people first.

 * British journalist Yvonne Ridley is the European President of the International Muslim




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