South African army ends hijab ban for military service members

 

The South African military has overhauled a ban on a policy that prevented Muslim servicewomen to wear the hijab, a religious headscarf. This ended the three-year advocacy for policy change by a female major. 

Three years of legal wrangling marked the new shift in policy that allows servicewomen to wear headscarves while on duty. A female major Major, Fatima Isaacs, who faced dismissal for refusing to take off her hijab made a spirited fight for her right to wear it. In January last year, a military court at the Castle of Good Hope dropped all charges against her for wearing her hijab under her army beret. The charges against her were “willful defiance” and “failing to obey lawful instructions.” Isaacs argued that her hijab did not conceal any military rankings or insignia. 

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She was allowed to wear a tight black wrap over her head provided it did not cover her ears or neck area but she opted to pursue a legal approach. 

Despite that win, the military made no amendment to its dress policy, thus prompting Major Isaacs who has served as a clinical forensic pathologist for over a decade at the 2 Military Hospital in Wynberg, Cape Town, to pursue the matter further. Nazeema Mohamed, a labor specialist and lead advisor to Isaacs, argued that SANDF is violating the country’s bill of rights, particularly an individual’s right to “freedom of religion, belief or opinion”.

Given the military court did not have the powers to amend the law,  she found it fit to lodge a challenge at South Africa’s Equality Court over the new regulations restricting religious headwear. In their ruling, the court found that SANDF's dress policy and the restrictions of hijabs in the military were unconstitutional.  

In a statement issued on Thursday by Mafi Mgobozi the military spokesman, The South African Defence Force amended its policy this week to allow all Muslim women to cover their heads during military service.

Comments by Isaacs shared on the BBC, described South Africa as a “democratic country” that should not tolerate “discrimination with regards to religious beliefs.” He went further to describe religion as the “foundation of a moral state.”

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Isaacs was represented by the Legal Resources Centre, based in SA, which welcomed the decision on Twitter. The Muslim Judicial Council SA, (MJC) was also involved in the case

Even welcoming the decision by SANDF. As the religious advisory board for Muslims within the SANDF, MJC held meaningful engagements with senior members of SANDF’s chaplaincy over Major Fatima’s case. Mualima Khadija Patel-Allie, the chairman of the MJC summed up the victory by saying, “Our scarf is integral to our code of living.”

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South Africa has a liberal constitution and many who viewed it as a model for equality and justice wondered how this remained an unresolved issue. Many interpreted the case as a demonstration of the adverse effects of islamophobia in the region and how institutions systemically discriminate against members of that faith. 

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