Blogging Tunisia: ban, censorship and more censorship…

Written for Global Voices

Blogging Tunisia: Ban, censorship and more censorship

The major issue that has attracted the attention of the Tunisian bloggers in the last two weeks was the campaign against the Islamic veil launched by the Tunisian regime to wipe out what senior officials describe as “sectarian dress”. This last depiction finds its roots in the decree “108”, pioneering legal bans on the veil, issued in the early 80’s at the height of the confrontation between the authorities and Islamists.

This time, before persecuting women of flesh and blood, and before forbidding them to wear veils in schools and government offices, the Tunisian regime has inaugurated the new academic year by cracking down toy shops across the country in search for, Fulla, the dark-eyed doll. The doll with “Muslim values” which has been introduced in November 2003 has quickly swept Middle East markets, replacing American Barbie and becoming a best-seller all over the region, The New York Times said.

The hunt against the hijab-clad doll was actually an introduction to the harassment and persecution of real women with headscarf at schools, universities, work and even on streets. This development has enflamed the debate over the veils, not only among bloggers, but elsewhere on the Internet, television and newspapers. Even Aljazeera TV channel has broadcasted a hot debate between pro- and anti-veils (watch the video [AR]).

Inside the Tunisian blogsphere, the headscarf affair raised questions about individual rights. About the logic that pushed the state to intervene to impose a uniform way of life and a “vestimentary code” on its citizens. Pointing out the nonsense and schizophrenia of the rules of forbiddeness, Stupeur [Fr] has put that in an artistic way by showing all prohibited things in Tunisia, from headscarves and beard to alcohol and marijuana. In the mean time, Tunisian Docteur [Fr], in allusion to the statement made by President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali that the veil “does not fit with Tunisia’s heritage“, calls the girls of the country to be ready for an eventual prohibition that may touch some sort of non-Tunisian clothes and accessories like strings and piercing.

Tarek [Fr] considers the issue as a part of a deep crisis of identity and the quest of new one, once Europe has proved to be disappointing by turning its back on the Tunisian people. Following almost the same reasoning and pointing out the responsibility of the West that is loosing the heart and mind of the young generation among Tunisians, especially after 9/11, Zizou [Fr] has also mentioned the harmful religious propaganda broadcasted from the Middle-East. He underlined the urgent need of a public debate that it should take place in Tunisia around such increasingly sensitive topic.

Thémis [Fr] finds that the government, in order to win empathy, should be consistent in fighting both extreme, not only veils, but also nudity. And that is why she believes that the logic behind the actual campaign against headscarves is pure politic. It is a matter of power. Islamists, due to their increasing number and social position, may represent the threat to political status quo in Tunisia.

Apart from this passionate and controversial subject, bloggers have also debated plenty of other hot-topics, like unemployment among university graduates. Like A Girl From Mars [Fr] who is upset to see how easy graduates, after completion of their studies, are willing to accept a low remuneration and a short term employment to the detriment of their studies. Even if she recognizes the hard circumstances surrounding the issue of unemployment, she advises the new graduates to stand up for their rights to earn an adequate and higher income according to their diplomas and skills. But for Lowe [Fr], having diplomas is no longer enough. Graduates need to improve their writing and linguistic capabilities especially for foreign language and English in order to find an adequate job. Deploring the lack of linguistic skill among a large cohort of graduates who simply cannot write a sentence, Low advises them to make use of Internet services particularly the online translation sites.

Are the online translation sites a proper solution? On this matter Xander [Fr] draws our attention to the fact that online translation sites are being blocked in Tunisia by the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI):

Il parait que l’ATI censure les traducteurs en ligne pour empêcher les tunisiens de consulter des informations néfastes pour leurs santé mentale.

It appears that ATI has blocked language translation sites preventing by this way Tunisian citizens from getting access to information that could be harmful to their mental health.

This information, which has surprised and shocked [Fr] many who thought it was a sick joke, has already been reported, in 2005, by the Open Net Initiative who identified the motives for this censorship:

The state also blocked one-quarter of language translation sites tested (4 of 17, 24%). Like anonymizers, translation sites can permit users to reach blocked content. A user who requests that such a site translate a filtered page can often read the prohibited content since it is the translation site, not the user, that accesses the blocked content.

Talking about The “other censorship” [Fr] cases, the blogger and former judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui – who was among the final three candidates for The BOBs Special Award 2005 from Reporters Without Borders (RSF)– reminds us that at the moment censorship is being extended to target TV programs. He points out the popular “Bidoun Istithan” (without invitation) in which, the journalist Farah Ben Amara, enlightens the hidden side of Tunisian society by meeting the poorest people in the country and putting their misery in display. “Bidoun Istithan” broadcasted on « Hannibal TV » – country’s only private TV- has been interrupted after a campaign was launched against it by some journalists on government-controlled media accusing it of voyeurism. Though cautious in her wording, A Girl In The Moon wrote about “Tunisian double way of life” [Fr] and the individualism that is spreading through the country and asked with sarcasm where “Bidoun Istithan” has gone? As for karim2k, he notices that :

“Bidoun Istithan” (without invitation) have show how some of our citizen have really bad times, where poverty dwells in bitterness and hope, the hope that Hannibal TV offers to all the watchers of a better tomorrow.

Unfortunately, we are not done yet with the censorship’s long arm. Last week, as khanouff [Fr] wrote, the Tunisian public will not be able to watch the playwright Jalila Baccar’s [Fr] new work, “Corps-otages” [Fr] (Captive Bodies) or “Khamsoun” (fifthly, because of the play’s treatment of problems confronting Tunisia 50 years after the independence), directed by the living legend of Tunisian theater Fadhel Jaibi [Fr]. “The play which has only recently returned from a highly successful run at Paris’s Odéon theatre, in June 2006 [Fr]”, the Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC) said in his last press release on October 13.

The Ministry of Culture’s Review Board has announced the censorship of the play and demanded that all dates, names of persons and cities, as well as Qoranic verses and references to Tunisian modern history be removed. “The board is demanding that Jaibi bring the play in line with a list of 100 themes subject to censorship before it grants the opening permit.” In his note, Ancien Combattant [Fr], who attended the meeting in Solidarity with “Corps-otages” held in El Teatro, gives us an unexhaustive list of themes subject to censorship and a link [Ar] to the letter of protest that Fadhel Jaibi has sent to the Minister of Culture.

Although as Fadhel Jaibi is “doing this play so [his] daughter won’t be forced to wear hijab“, the Tunisian government has censured Jaibi’s artistic work and chosen its own methods to deal with such issues: ban, censorship and more censorship.

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