Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly Gets a Fresh Face

The Vice President of the first democratically elected Arab Assembly is a woman, an Islamist, a liberal and … a French citizen.

On the Tunisian political scene, Mehrezia Labidi-Maiza was virtually unknown before her sensational debut on Monday November 22, the day she entered the political arena. But we really ought to know her better, seeing as she is the second most important person in the Constituent Assembly.

Despite the fact that she was unheard of during the October 23 elections campaign, she was elected as a candidate for Ennahda and was propelled into the spotlight of the Tunisian political and media world when she was appointed to the prestigious seat of Vice President of the Constituent Assembly.

Mehrezia Labidi-Maiza graduated from the Ecole Normale of Sousse where she was among the best students in her class. She then went to Paris where she studied translation, first at the Sorbonne and later at the Saint-Denis European Institute for Human Sciences. A long-time religious and political activist, she serves as both the president of a global network called Women of Faith for Peace and as a co-director of the association Religions for Peace.

Labidi, who never tried to hide the fact that she is a French citizen, lives in France where she was elected as an Ennahda representative in the France I electoral district. Her dual citizenship is highly criticized among her foes.

Her vision of Islam as a tolerant and open religion, accepting of differences, will certainly improve the image of Ennahda, an image that was tarnished by the now infamous diatribes of Souad Abderrahim and Hamadi Jebali. No doubt that Labidi is a godsend to the overtly religious political party.

Labidi distinguished herself during the summer of 2010 when the law forbidding the full-face veil (niqab) was under discussion in France. In her “Open Letter to My Sisters Who Wear the Niqab” – which is still posted on the website of the French Council of the Muslim Faith – Labidi’s eminently religious reflection is anything but austere. Her thoughts are subtle and she is mildly reserved about the idea that a Muslim woman must wear a full body veil. She poses the question: “Do you think you are displaying a positive image of Islam walking around on the streets with your faces covered?”

Her commitment to wearing the Muslim head cover does not prevent her from underlining the fact that appearances should not overshadow personal beliefs. According to her, the Muslim head cover is meaningless if the person wearing it does not live by the values of the religion: kindness, altruism and tolerance. The Islam she defends is an Islam of “balance” that encourages the quest for knowledge, openness and dialogue with others. Finally, she considers the problematic notion of “Sharia” more as a path that gives inspiration and less as a set of rigorous rules and laws that await rigid application.

Mehrezia Labidi-Maiza’s position certainly reflects the image of a modern and liberal Islamist. If the fact that she wears a veil still bothers some, why not think of it as a means for learning how to stop judgment based on appearances. Instead, try to seek out the meaning behind those appearances, a less obvious and accessible place.

Abbes Ben Mahjouba