Another Muslim woman has broken her silence over alleged discrimination in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and has revealed her long struggle to wear the headscarf. Suwayba Fischer has been a member of the military for 13 years and served in the South African Military Health Service. She worked as a nursing officer at the 2 Military hospital in Wynberg, the same facility where Major Fatima Isaacs has experienced similar discrimination. Isaacs faces a disciplinary hearing for “defiance of a lawful instruction” after she refused to remove her headscarf.
Speaking to journalists outside the military court at the Castle of Good Hope on Wednesday, where Isaacs appeared for a preliminary investigation, Fischer said she was approached by the head colonel at the hospital that the military was “not a place for a Muslim woman”, particularly one wearing a headscarf.
“There were times we were visited [by senior ranking officers] and put on the spot and told to remove the headscarf. I took this with a pinch of salt in the beginning but later it became traumatic,” she explained.
As in the case of Major Fatima Isaacs, Fischer said the constant chastisement endured for ten years. At the start of the ten year period, there were no problems with the wearing of the headscarf, however as new military officers took over, a hard line approach was taken against Muslim members. A pattern of Islamophobia and bigotry in the SANDF started to emerge.
“During the time I was there, one specific colonel blatantly discriminated against me. She made statements that a person that wears a scarf is oppressed. I took offence to this, but because of ranks, you cannot object,” she recalled.
“Another colonel, that was above her, visited us and said there’s no place for a Muslim woman, especially a woman wearing a scarf, in the army. She said if I cannot remove my scarf, I must leave the military. Shortly afterwards, I handed in my resignation.”
Many Muslim women did not object to senior officers rebuking them for wearing the headscarf, out of fear of victimisation and disciplinary action. Fischer said the aggrieved women had appealed for an official policy on the headscarf so that ranking officers could not question them.
While Fischer was not formally disciplined, many Muslim women were reprimanded, and they then decided to take the matter further.
“The generals in charge of the religious decisions were meant to have a sitting. But nothing came of it. People then came and told us to remove our headgear. When we walked in corridors, we had to be in hiding literally. I was working in an enclosed space so I wasn’t exposed that much to the high ranks until the last few years when I was at the military hospital.”
“I experienced so much emotional trauma, especially in the last year there. In this time, we’ve been back and forth on the issue of the scarf.”
Fischer has thrown her full weight behind Major Fatima Isaacs in her pursuit of justice.