South African Muslimahs Speak about Headscarves at Airports

Over the Christmas and New Year season, Quraysha Ismail Sooliman, South African Muslimah scholar and lecturer in Political Studies at the University of Pretoria, was on her way out of the country with her family. At Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, she and her daughters were stopped at passport control, and one of her daughters was asked to remove her headscarf in order to be properly identified. The same happened upon their return, when her second daughter was asked the same, both times in an abrupt and condescending tone.

Shakira Sooliman. Image via Mail & Guardian.

Sooliman, who happens to be an outspoken gender-activist, decided to write to South African Home Affairs, stating,

“We are South African citizens and highly offended by this attitude. If rights are being violated due to ignorance by home affairs officials then such behaviour needs to be corrected. We do not wear face veils so the demand to have the head covering removed violates constitutional rights.”

She further stated, “I am raising this issue because I do not want to see an escalation of ‘Islamophobia around hijab’ in our beautiful country.”

The reason I discuss this story here is two-fold. Firstly, the issue appeared in the media (both print and radio), with other Muslim women coming forward to report being handled in the same way. Secondly, the way in which Muslim women themselves took this story up, using the mainstream South African media to voice their concerns, is representative of their emerging voice in broader society.

One of the first to report on this story was the Mail & Guardian. Fatima Asmal-Motala, freelance journalist and Muslimah activist, who herself experienced discrimination for wearing a headscarf when applying for a passport, reported for the paper.  Her story included a detailed interview with Sooliman, as well another woman who was asked to remove her headscarf, and a response from a Home Affairs representative. Her story allowed the women to speak for themselves, explaining why the incidents upset them to the extent it did – particularly in the very tolerant South African context, where all forms of religion and dress are usually respected. The headline however, “Headscarves Raise Hackles” left much to be desired, giving the impression the women were kicking up a fuss for petty reasons.

Sooliman and Asmal-Motala were also interviewed on the national radio station SAfm, where they posed important questions directly to Home Affairs, and other Muslim women were given the chance to call in to report similar experiences. Their interview brought to the mainstream society’s attention the independent voices of Muslim women, in protesting about matters they believe to be an infringement of their religious rights.

Other media outlets like Sunday Times and IOL also reported on the story, making sure to quote Sooliman, who always maintained that “We do not want special favours but want to be treated with dignity and respect,” and asked the pressing questions, “Is there religious freedom in South Africa or is it also going to be eroded? Is there legislation that states that Muslim women cannot submit photographs for passports or ID documents with a headscarf?”

However, the Sunday Times article inaccurately in the headline that “Home Affairs orders headscarves off.” A few misinformed officials did request some Muslim women to remove their head-coverings, but Home Affairs have assured the Muslim community that any checks would have to be conducted privately, and headscarves are acceptable in ID photographs.

The establishment also decided to run a public-poll asking whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear headscarves at passport-control. The poll question was problematic in that it opened up discussions on options that are clearly already the constitutional rights of Muslim women, allowing the public to decide for Muslim women what makes suitable travel gear.

Other websites that picked up on the story grossly conflated the issue of headscarves with face-veils, posting pictures of women with their faces covered in their stories, showing little understanding of the nuances and heterogeneity of Muslim women.

Muslim media responded to the incidences as well, with the Voice of the Cape reporting no less than five articles dedicated to the issue, including interviews from various affected women, facts from religious bodies regarding their correspondence with government, detailed information from Home Affairs on what exactly constitutes proper garb for photographs and their protocol for security checks; thereby assuaging any frenzy that could have ensued.

These isolated incidents were given a lot of media attention, and I am particularly happy it resulted in so many Muslim women having a say on a concern that affects them personally, at a national level.