STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The secretary of state made several visits to North Africa where the Arab uprisings began in 2011. Those uprisings widened the political space for religious conservatives.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And in the country we'll visit next, people have been arguing over a powerful symbol of ultra-conservative Islam: the face veil.
INSKEEP: Tunisia is not a country where women are compelled to cover their faces or their hair. In fact, an aggressively secular government once discouraged the veil.
MONTAGNE: Now that government is gone, and ultra-conservatives, known as Salafis, say they want the freedom to practice their faith as they choose.
INSKEEP: At Tunisia's Manouba University, Salafis are protesting a rule that bars the face veil in the classroom.
NPR's Leila Fadel continues her series on the Salafis of North Africa.
BAHRI MARIAM: Oh, I hate that.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: You hate that?
MARIAM: Yes. Why?
FADEL: Twenty-three-year-old Bahri Mariam sits on the steps of the Linguistics Department of Manouba University. Her face scrunches with disgust when I ask her about the Salafi students on campus. The men are easily spotted by their long, scraggly beards and shin length pants.
MARIAM: I hate the way that they think. You know? I don't think that they're Islam.
FADEL: Mariam is unveiled and she smokes a cigarette as she speaks. That makes her a sinner in the minds of the Salafis. But she says they don't represent Tunisians. And she solidly backs the dean's insistence on banning the niqab, a face-covering garment favored by Salafi women.
The debate echoes through the hallways of this academic institution where secular students coexist with the moderately religious and with the Salafis.
It's been a battle that ebbs and flows. Some call it the frontline of a war for identity. The dean, who hails from a leftist political party, feels he has a duty to uphold the rule banning the niqab. But he also is acting as a Tunisian, he says, to stem the growth of what he sees as a backwards ideology that calls for people to live as the Muslim prophet did 1400 years ago.
Salafi students say they still feel ostracized and oppressed two years after Tunisians overthrew an autocratic and secular president. Islamists were persecuted under the former president, women's scarves were snatched off their heads, and men with beards were targeted by security forces.
MOHAMMED RAFIQ: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: Speaking for the Salafi students, Mohammed Rafiq says they're just asking for basic rights.
RAFIQ: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: During months of campus protests last year, Rafiq says the Salafis offered concessions on the niqab ban, saying women who cover their faces could be searched by female security guards. But the dean rejected the proposal. He also refused to give the Salafis a special place for prayer. Rafiq says the dean is afraid that if they have a place to pray, the Salafi community will grow.
The dean, Habib Kazdaghli, is unapologetic for his stand.
HABIB KAZDAGHLI: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: In order to teach, professors must see their students' faces, he says. He jokes about the new lock on his office door, installed after Salafi students stormed the building last year. One of those students, a woman wearing a niqab, accused him of assault, an accusation he denies. His trial is underway.
Despite his travails, Kazdaghli is jovial. He shows us newspaper clippings about the protests and his trial.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUSTLING PAPER)
KAZDAGHLI: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: He is fighting a battle for Tunisia, he says. Like many in the secular elite, he talks about Salafism as if it were a disease that will drag Tunisia backward.
KAZDAGHLI: (Through translator) They would like to erase the past 50 years of Tunisia's history, as if independent Tunisia never existed. As if state establishments never existed. There have been successes and progress in Tunisia even though there was a dictatorship.
FADEL: I tell him Salafi students say they feel like a persecuted minority on campus.
KAZDAGHLI: (Through translator) In Tunisia, everyone is Muslim. At this university, our reference is not religion. Religion is in the mosque. Politics is in the party. Here, the priority is education. My priority is to provide education.
FADEL: Hend, a young student who helped me report this story was disturbed by the dean's comments. She studies at Manouba University. And though she has much in common with the dean, she doesn't agree with him about the Salafis.
HEND: The rights of the minority should be protected too. You know? This is not dictatorship of the majority.
FADEL: Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.