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South African military lifts ban on wearing headscarves

26th Feb 2021
South African military lifts ban on wearing headscarves

Major Fatima Isaacs  (Courtesy of Legal Resources Centre)

Nadine Osman

The South African Defence Force has revised its uniform policy to permit Muslim women to wear the hijab, an army spokesperson said.

In January last year, a military court dropped charges against an officer who had been indicted for wearing a hijab under her military beret.

Major Fatima Isaacs had been criminally charged in June 2018 with wilful defiance and failing to obey lawful instructions after her superior asked her to remove her hijab when in uniform.A military court at the Castle of Good Hope near Cape Town withdrew all charges on January 22, 2020, allowing Isaacs to exceptionally wear a tight black hijab on duty as long as it did not cover her ears.

But the military did not amend its dress policy, prompting Isaacs to mount a challenge in the equality court over regulations restricting religious wear.

The South African Defence Force eventually agreed to amend its policy this week and allow all Muslim women to cover their heads while on duty.

“The South African Defence Force dress regulation was updated to allow the wearing of headscarves by Muslim (women) according to stipulations in the dress regulations,” said spokesman Mafi Mgobozi.

The South Africa-based Legal Resources Centre , which represented Isaacs, welcomed the decision and said it was withdrawing the equality court case. Isaacs, who works as a clinical forensic pathologist at a military hospital, told the Cape Times it was a victory not only for her, but all people who were “silently victimised” because of their religion.

“We are living in a democratic country which means that there should be no discrimination with regards to religious beliefs. I believe religion is the foundation of a moral state/country. This is an important victory,” she said.

Tweeting on January 27 the Legal Resources Centre announced the centre, ‘has been engaged in discussions with the South African Defence Force , resulting in the the South African Defence Force amending its religious dress policy, to allow Muslim women to wear their hijab with their military uniform.

As such, we filed a Notice of Withdrawal in the Equality Court. We will therefore not be pursuing this matter further as the current South African Defence Force policy no longer discriminates against Muslim women in the military.’

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