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Tunisia Manouba University Students Face Off Over Islamic Veil On Campus

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TUNISIA MANOUBA UNIVERSITY
Female students, wearing niqab, walk up stairs at the office of the dean of the Faculty of Arts in Manuba, some 25 kms west of Tunis, on December 8, 2011. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images) | Getty

TUNIS, Tunisia -- Around 200 students and professors demonstrated in Tunisia's capital on Wednesday calling for an end to the standoff by ultraconservative Muslims at a nearby university.

For more than a month classes and exams at Manouba University's humanities department have been put on hold by a sit-in demanding students be allowed to attend class in the conservative face veil, known as the niqab.

"Science before the niqab," and "no to shackles, no to niqab, knowledge is free," read the signs of the demonstrators, who urged the minister of higher education to resolve the dispute so that classes could resume.

University policy prevents students from covering their faces during class.

The sit-in has been the latest crisis faced by Tunisia since it overthrew its long-serving dictator last year, who had aggressively promoted secular policies.

In his absence there has been a resurgence of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafists, who are seeking a greater role for Islam in public life.

The department's dean, Habib Kazdaghli, attended the protest and said that the people blocking classes weren't even university students.

Kazdaghli said the Salafists attacked him and prevented him from going to his office.

"The people not from the department should leave the premises and they represent a majority of those at the sit-in," he said, calling for the police to clear out the conservatives so classes could resume.

The actions by the Salafists, including calls for more public prayer, have put the new Tunisia government, headed by a moderate Islamist group, in an awkward position.

The governing moderate Islamist Ennahda Party originally did not speak out against the actions of the Salafists, but subsequently has condemned any violence or interruption of classes.

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