South African women who protested outside the Syrian embassy in Pretoria on Monday were told by police to remove the religious veils (niqab) that covered their faces.
The women were among about 30 people who had gathered outside the embassy to raise awareness about the ongoing atrocities against civilians in Aleppo. Their picket was also a call for the Syrian government to protect civilians and investigate war crimes.
Police reportedly told demonstrators that they did not have the required permit to protest and said women wearing veils over their faces must remove them. At least two police officers made the demand.
“According to the police, their concern is that I could be a suicide bomber. They said people could come here and pretend to be protesters, and then blow themselves up,” said Taahira Timol (31), a school teacher.
Timol told police officers that if they wanted to identify her, a female police officer could see her face and compare it with her identity document.
“They are stereotyping people who dress like this. South Africa has never had a suicide bombing by a woman in niqab. Why am I being stereotyped like this and why is my democratic freedom of practising my religion being infringed upon?”
The police responded to the allegations, telling the Mail & Guardian that “it is a right for every person to complain if any member of the service treats him/her in a manner that is in contravention of the Constitution”.
“Should the protestor comes forward with a complaint, the allegations will be investigated,” said Gauteng police spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Lungelo Dlamini.
Although the Gatherings Act does require protesters to reveal their faces when demonstrating, Chapter 3 of the Act states that “no person shall at any gathering or demonstration wear a disguise or mask or any other apparel or item which obscures his facial features and prevents his identification”.
But the Constitution also grants every person in South Africa the freedom to practise their religion.
“Maybe they are trying to do what France is trying to do. One thing I can say is that it’s not going to happen in this country. We voted for a democratic government. The disappointing thing is that our government is not even standing with us on Syria,” said Khadija Khan (50), who also protested.
Solidarity with Aleppo
Protesters negotiated with police and it was agreed that the picket could continue if they left the embassy at 2.15pm. Women who had their faces covered were allowed to remain. The group had applied on Friday for a permit to protest, but had gone ahead with the demonstration on Monday despite receiving no response.
The picket was organised by student chapters of Amnesty International at the University of Pretoria (UP) and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
“The UP and Wits chapters decided from what we learnt from the United Nations, Amnesty and social media that the government killings in Syria need to be addressed,” said Alexander Ehlers (21), chairperson of the Amnesty International student society at UP.
The United Nations special envoy estimated in April that 400 000 civilians had died in Syria since the war began in 2011. Humanitarian organisations have struggled to identify the exact death toll because of the violent and difficult environment in parts of Syria. Widespread bombing in eastern Aleppo has led to more than 4500 people being evacuated from rebel-held territories.
The war in Syria has been characterised by continued violence by numerous political groupings. The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad and backed by Russia, has been accused of war crimes, while opposition groups such as the Al-Nusra Front, known as the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, have fought against the government. Protesters say it is nearly impossible to find a political group that cares for the lives of civilians in Syria.
“Any sort of a moderate opposition in Syria in real terms is absent. It’s really tragic that, on one hand, there is no real left in Syria and, on the other hand, there’s nobody to back from a humanitarian perspective. You could speak in favour of the White Helmets but at the end of the day these aren’t political factions, these are people who are doing aid work,” said Raees Noorbhai (20), chairperson of the Amnesty International student society at Wits.
The South African government’s stance on Aleppo
The protesters say they are standing in solidarity with Syrian civilians, but they are waiting for the South African government to show solidarity too. In their memorandum of demands, the group says the home affairs department has mistreated Syrian refugees in South Africa, and wants the government to investigate.
The protesters planned to hand over the memorandum of demands to a representative from the Syrian embassy, but nobody from the embassy met the group. The Mail & Guardian contacted the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) for comment on Aleppo, but they did not respond at the time of publishing. Dirco did, however, release a statement condemning the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey.
The SA Government strongly condemns the killing of Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey. Condolences to his family, Government & people of Russia.
— DIRCO South Africa (@DIRCO_ZA) December 19, 2016
Timol said her experience with the police on Monday gave her an insight into what a fascist regime could be like, but it does not come close to the increasingly violent turmoil Syrians are facing as a result of the warfare waged by many political groups who, she says, are tied to fascism.
“We hope that this collective pressure will have an impact and awareness will be raised on what is happening in Syria,” Timol said.