Major Fatima Isaacs recently appeared before the court of military justice at the Castle of Good Hope for her “wilful defiance, and disobeying a lawful command”. She refuses to remove her hijab.
Isaacs, who has worked for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) for the past 10 years, maintains that her hijab, which she wears under her military beret, does not obstruct any military rankings or insignia.
Despite this, and the fact that she had previously been granted permission to wear a hijab, the defence force, based on the actions of one colonel, decided to proceed with charges against her.
Her case echoes that of Fairouz Adams, a social worker at a Worcester prison who, in 2006, was dismissed for “violating the corporate identity of the department of correctional services”.
Isaacs and Adams’s cases are not unique, and most such cases remain unreported. In public schools, the practice of “disciplining” Muslim girls for wearing the hijab is especially prevalent.
In 2016, a first-year student at the International Academy of Health and Skincare in Cape Town, was ordered to remove her hijab before she would be allowed to write her exam. In 2017, the principal of De Grendel School of Skills, also in Cape Town, refused to allow a girl to wear the hijab, claiming that “despite his research, he could not find anything stipulating that a hijab must be worn”.
Last year, a few Muslim girls at Jeppe High School for Girls in Johannesburg were charged with misconduct for “repeated dress code infringements” by choosing to wear the hijab. This year, Khadeejah Kaffoor, a regional Muslim Students Association chairperson, was asked to remove her hijab by Airport Company South Africa security personnel.
These cases raise important questions. What is it about the hijab that is seemingly so troubling to some people? Why do liberal democracies paradoxically assume that in forcing Muslim women to remove their hijabs, they are somehow emancipating them?
As is the case with all other faiths and traditions, Islam is not monolithic, and interpretations of this faith are certainly not homogenous.
First, therefore, the category of Muslim women is not fixed. Muslim women are neither defined by a common identity, nor by a common understanding of Qur’anic exegeses. Rather, particular interpretations of religious texts and traditions, as well as personal narratives, shape how women choose to express their identities, membership and participation.
Second, Muslim women wear the hijab for different reasons. These range from religious compliance, personal piety and family and societal pressure to symbols of identity and cultural or political assertion.
Despite particular Qur’anic verses, which call upon Muslim women not to display their beauty, and to draw their veils (verse 24: 31; verse 33:59), there are various, often contesting interpretations as to whether the hijab is an obligatory garment or whether it should best be understood in terms of particular historical, sociological or political contexts.
Seemingly, if there is one point of agreement between Muslims and liberal democracies about Islam, then it is the centrality of Muslim women. In normative Islam, Muslim women are epitomised as the embodiment of values of Islam, as the custodians of the family and, hence, society. Liberal democracies hone in on these same values, but only to bring them into disrepute.
By attempting to prescribe Muslim women’s dress code, liberal democracies also regulate their movements in the public space, by making it clear that in entering the public space, they need to leave their Muslim identity in the privacy of their homes.
This, however, is not a new controversy. The construction of Muslim women as oppressed, subservient, backward and “other” stands in stark contradiction to the idea of Western women, who are regarded as educated and liberated.
Although the unveiled bodies of Western women are welcomed into the proverbial public square, the veiled bodies of Muslim women are prohibited and ostracised.
Muslim women are portrayed paradoxically, as oppressed victims by their own faith, and as a threat to the values of liberal democracies . This kind of dichotomy suggests not only an impoverished understanding of Muslim women — and Islam — but undermines the very conceptions of a democracy.
One has to ask what liberal democracies stand to lose by “allowing” Muslim women to live their religious identities as they choose? Is it a loss of power, which deems certain ways and imageries of life acceptable, while others are not? Do we all have to look, sound and think the same for democracy to be safe?
It is hard to ignore the underlying colonialist discourse, which seeks to define normative ways of being at the cost of others’ humiliation and violation.
Each time Muslim women are humiliated, marginalised or charged with an offence, as if they are criminals, they become stigmatised and alienated from their own societies. When Muslim women are forced into removing their hijabs, they are being asked to undermine and act against the very beliefs that shape who they are. They are being told that who they are will not be tolerated and recognised by liberal democracies.
Although Muslim women have shown that they are able to rise above increasing antagonisms, I am not so sure about liberal democracies. When liberal democracies act in ways that afford fewer rights to one group than another, the only outcome is one of self-erosion.
The SANDF, like any other defence force, occupies and symbolises a privileged position of power. With elevated power comes elevated responsibilities.
It is, therefore, not enough, for the defence force to just respect the Constitution. It must be seen as defending it as a public good. The Bill of Rights (chapter 2 of the Constitution) is unequivocal in its statement that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.” Moreover, “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.”
A valuable question the defence force should ask itself is: What good can come from forcing Isaacs to remove her hijab? What can possibly be gained from forcing one woman to act against her own conscience and beliefs?
Professor Nuraan Davids is chair of the department of education policy studies at Stellenbosch University. Her research interests include democratic citizenship education, Islamic education and gender issues