Tunisia bans women from wearing niqab in public buildings

Prime minister's order comes in response to heightened security fears after suicide bombings

A woman, wearing a face veil, walks in the old city of Tunis, Tunisia July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
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Tunisia's prime minister has banned women from wearing the niqab in government offices, citing security concerns after recent attacks in the country.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed signed a government circular "banning access to public administrations and institutions to anyone with their face covered ... for security reasons," his office said.

The ban on the niqab, which covers the entire face apart from the eyes, comes at a time of heightened security following a June 27 double suicide bombing in Tunis that left two dead and seven wounded.

In October, a veiled female suicide bomber wounded nine people, mainly police officers, in central Tunis.

The interior minister instructed police in February 2014 to step up supervision of the wearing of the niqab as part of anti-terrorism measures, to prevent its use as a disguise or to escape justice.

The Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights urged that the measure be only temporary.

"We are for the freedom to dress [as one pleases], but today with the current situation and the terrorist threats in Tunisia and across the region we find justifications for this decision," the league's president Jamel Msallem said.

He said the ban should be repealed as soon as "a normal security situation returns in Tunisia".

The niqab and other outward shows of Muslim piety were not tolerated under the regime of longtime autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali but have made a comeback since he was toppled in Tunisia's 2011 revolution. After that year, women were allowed to wear the hijab and niqab in Tunisia after a decades-long ban under secular presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba, who rejected all forms of Islamic dress.

After bloody attacks in 2015 that targeted security forces and tourists, there were calls in Tunisia to re-impose the ban.

Also on Friday, the country's 92-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi made his first public appearance since leaving hospital following a serious illness.

Video from the president's office showed Mr Essebsi signing a decree Friday authorising elections in October and November and making a brief address, four days after being discharged from a military hospital.

In a statement later, his office said the president also prolonged the North African nation's ongoing state of emergency for one more month.

Mr Essebsi won office in 2014, in the wake of the country's 2011 uprising that toppled Ben Ali.

He recently announced he wouldn't run in the November election, saying a younger person should lead the country.