Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, a holy month observed by Muslims worldwide as a time for fasting, praying and reflecting. Practising Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and engaging in sexual activity from dawn time and until sunset prayers. It is also instructed that Muslims practice compassion and self-restraint and refrain from engaging in hateful speech or instigating conflict.
In Tunis, Ramadan is a special time of year, reserved mostly for family and friends. People gather daily to share dinner and then many of them flock to the old Medina where they listen to music and dance until it is time to fast again.
For fasting and non-fasting Tunisians alike, this time of year is also a test of the people’s capacity for patience and tolerance for the issue of eating and drinking in public constantly provokes a political and social debate.
During the day, the pace of life is slow; tired and lacking in energy, people leave their offices early in the afternoon and shops are often open for a couple of hours a day. No one drinks or smokes on the streets and restaurants remain closed. Ordinarily busy streets are deserted, especially just before sunset, with a few young men here and there, passing their time in the doorways of old houses or in the shadows of an occasional tree. From time to time their families order them to rush out into the evening heat to grab the last available piece of bread for the iftar supper.
A number of cafés however, are silently protesting against the daily winding down of the city. Café owners must apply for permission to keep their doors open during the day for hungry and thirsty customers and, in order to receive this dispensation, they are obliged to cover the windows and doors of their ‘hideaways’. As a result, old newspapers, reflective foil or heavy curtains make it impossible for passers-by to see what is happening inside the cafés: the covering bestowing an odd sense that there are clandestine practices afoot. The sporadic glimpse of an arm or a foot is the only hint of an apparent parallel universe and the ordinary café suddenly appears semi-legal and shady, calling to mind images from gangster movies. However, the people inside are simply in search of their daily dose of caffeine and nicotine in a fight against boredom.
‘En quoi ça te dérange - si tu jeûnes & moi je mange?’ - Why be upset, if you abstain and I banquet?
Every year during Ramadan the issue of eating and drinking in public during the day provokes a huge political debate in Tunisia. The police regularly shut down cafés that do not adhere to the special regulation that requires them to cover windows and doors during the month of Ramadan. Indeed on 1 June 2017, the sixth day of this year’s Ramadan, four men in the northern city of Bizerte were sentenced to one month in prison after being caught by the police smoking and drinking in a public park.
However, Tunisia would not be Tunisia, if there were not a number of people who took to the streets to protest. There is no law, which prohibits eating or drinking in public during Ramadan so activists came together in front of the justice ministry in Tunis for a spontaneous picnic to express their solidarity with the four men.
In effect, the men had been convicted under Article 226 of the penal code, which was introduced by the occupying French power in 1914. This article enables prosecutions to be brought against those involved in ‘violations of moral standards and public decency’ and was originally used to convict those engaged in such ‘crimes’ as kissing or showing physical affection in public. Indeed, Judge M. Boularès who presided over the trail in Bizerte, argued that their act ‘was provocative and posed an attack against morals.’
Rahma Essid, who took part in the picnic, said that, ‘Article 226 bluntly conflicts with Article 6 of the Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of belief and conscience.’ Article 49 of the Constitution further elaborates on the protection of individual rights and states clearly and that all judicial bodies should permanently secure the protection of rights and liberties of any violation. Defending the non-fasters, Rahma Essid co-organised a demonstration on 11 June 2017 under the slogan mouch_bessif, which in Tunisian Arabic means, ‘I’m not obliged’ or ‘I’m not under pressure’.
Reports of the demonstration by Tunisia’s mainstream media suggested that the protestors were solely demonstrating for the right to eat, drink and smoke on the street during Ramadan. There was a harsh backlash against the activists, especially on social media, where they were called disrespectful and some even received violent threats. The Mouch Bessif activists, though, point out that they were actually calling on the State to respect individual rights and liberties and to follow the new Tunisian constitution. ‘Our biggest fear,’ Rahma Essid says, ‘was the very broad interpretation of the law, under which the four men were persecuted. - This is extremely dangerous, the law has been very contentious before, but they have never applied it in such a case. Following an interpretation like this, they could also persecute me for leaving the house in a mini skirt if they wanted.’
The legislation that cafés must follow during the month of Ramadan is similarly confusing and out-dated, even though it is not so old. In 1981, then Prime Minister Mohammad Mzali ordered the daytime closure of all restaurants and cafés during the month of Ramadan. However, it only took two days for President Habib Bourguiba, famous for emphasising his belief in secularism by showing up publicly drinking water during Ramadan, to revoke the edict. Later it was re-introduced by Bourguiba’s successor Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali, although it was rarely enforced. Today authorities all over Tunisia refer to this regulation when ordering the closure of cafés.
In order to keep the cafés open another edict, dating back to 1977, comes into play. The then mayor of Tunis announced that the selling and buying of alcohol should be prohibited during Ramadan. The edict also stated that cafés and restaurants would need special authorisation to keep their doors open, although this originally referred to places especially created for tourists, and, finally, the same edict dictated that those venues that are open should not be visible to fasters.
Ironically, the Mouch Bessif group were unable to find these orders in any official legal code. Similarly, those café owners who were asked had never seen the original mandate and each year they have to request permission from their individual municipalities to open their doors, not knowing if it will be granted. This is why activists from the Mouch Bessif started a petition lobbying parliament to investigate this practice and to remove the edicts.
Wahid Ferchichi, professor of law at Tunis’ renowned Faculty of Judicial, Political and Social Sciences and President of the individual liberties NGO Adli (Association Tunisienne de Défense des Libertés Individuelles) says that, ‘it is a real problem that there is still no constitutional court in Tunisia, which would be obliged to scrap those edicts and laws, such as Article 226, which are hundred per cent unconstitutional.’ He goes on and says that, ‘the parliament and political parties, however, are unwilling to intervene due to the fragile government of national unity.’
The government of national unity is dominated by the two biggest parties in the country, the moderate-Islamist Ennahda party and the secular-conservative party Nidaa Tounes. In order to secure the fragile peace and to prevent further schism within the population the parties recoil from debate and, in particular, those that concern society and religion. For example, the dispute about whether eating and drinking should be permitted on the streets in the daytime during Ramadan, is an absolute taboo.
The question, however, is if the much-awaited constitutional court will live up to expectations and solve Tunisia’s legal inaccuracies. After all, the Tunisian Constitution of 2014 embodies the on-going ideological dispute and fragile compromise between the Islamist and secularist camps. For the activist, Rahma Essid, Article 6 guarantees her ‘the right to be different and a state which does not interfere in personal affairs.’ Yet, the same Article 6 also names the State as the guardian of religion, whereas the First Article of the Constitution unambiguously defines Islam as the religion of the State. Wahid Ferchichi concludes, that ‘in the end, we will have to wait for the composition of the constitutional court.’
Six years after the Revolution and three years since the Constitution came into effect, Tunisia’s fight about its own identity is ongoing. Is Tunisia a homogenous Muslim country with a collective society or should the State make space for more individualism, and do these questions necessarily have to be mutually exclusive? This is a fight where food fuels the political debate and becomes emblematic of the complex situation in Tunisia.
Although one amusing side effect of this very particular time during Ramadan is that suddenly male customers in men-only cafés are joined by women.