24 August 2012

Mozambique: Headscarves Allowed, Burqas Banned

Maputo — The Mozambican government has announced that moslem girls may wear their headscarves in Mozambican schools, both public and private - but types of headwear that completely hide the face, such as veils and burqas, remain banned.

Considerable confusion had been caused by a decree of the Ministry of Education, dated 10 August, which stated that moslem girls could only use the headscarf during the fasting month of Ramadan.

This led some moslem organisations to petition the government calling for the use of the headscarf to be extended to all times of the year. Some groups even issued threats. A previously unheard-of Council of Islamic Theologians in the northern province of Nampula threatened that moslems would cut off all relations with the government and with the ruling Frelimo Party.

On Wednesday, the Ministers of Justice and of Education, Benvinda Levi and Zeferino Martins, met with moslem leaders, and announced that moslem girls could wear headscarves in school.

Levi stressed that "whenever problems arise, we prioritise dialogue, and sit at the same table. It's by talking that we understand each other."

"The important thing is that we came out of the meeting with a consensus, namely that moslem women may use the headscarf", she said. "We talked only about the headscarf, and not the veil or burqa. Let that be clear".

But for some of the media, it has been far from clear. Thus the independent television station STV has systematically confused the terms headscarf, veil and burkha, as if they all referred to one and the same garment.

The initial polemic over covering the head concerned, not headscarves, but burqas. In June 2011, Martins himself suspended from school a pupil named Fatima Khalifa, who insisted on wearing a burqa to her classes in a secondary school in the northern province of Cabo Delgado.

The burqa is an all-enveloping black cloak. With the exception of a slit for the eyes, it hides the wearer's entire body and face from the rest of society. Although about 18 per cent of the Mozambican population (and considerably more in the northern provinces) are moslems, very few indeed wear the burqa, making it impossible to argue that wearing this garment constitutes a religious duty.

Indeed Fatima Khalifa was the first reported case of a girl wearing a burqa to school. Her unusual garb infuriated teachers at the Fraternidade Secondary School in the Cabo Delgado provincial capital, Pemba, and they refused to teach classes containing her. She insisted that she was within her rights to use a burqa, but Martins disagreed.

Not only does overtly religious garb in state schools challenge the constitutionally enshrined separation of church and state, but the burqa also brings severe practical problems. How can an invigilator know that a pupil sitting an exam is who she claims to be, if all he can see are her eyes?

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