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?” [Read more...]

Naked Ambition: Airport Body Scanners Only Offensive to Muslim Women?

Earlier this month, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for a gradual introduction of body scanners into U.K. airports following the failed attack on an American airliner on Christmas Day European nations are split over the necessity of introducing the body scanners. Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom are planning to install the scanners on a large scale in the near future, while France, Germany and Spain remain undecided, with the Belgian Home Secretary coming out to declare the measures as “excessive.” The body scanners have been likened to a “virtual strip-search,” leading to concerns over the violation of personal privacy from the European Human Rights Commission (EHRC), among other bodies.

An image of the body scanner. Image via

An image of the body scanner. Image via

Trevor Phillips, head of the EHRC has said that the machines breach privacy laws, as well as expressing concerns over possible racial and ethnic profiling of black, Asian and Muslim passengers. In a letter to Home Secretary Alan Johnson, Phillips said, “the government needs to ensure that measures to protect this right also take into account the need to be proportionate in its counter-terrorism proposals and ensure that they are justified by evidence and effectiveness.”

[Read more...]