A Muslim female member of the South Africa National Defence Force (SANDF) has been formally charged with disobeying a lawful instruction for refusing to remove her headscarf. Major Fatima Isaacs appeared in a closed military court at the Castle of Good Hope on Tuesday morning. The case has been postponed until the 7th of August. Her advisor Nazeema Mohamed said she was allowed to enter the court as an observer.
“The judge wanted to know whether the headscarf is part of the military’s dress code but all of that will be held off until the 7th August when she will be tried. She can now appoint her own legal team, so we are meeting with the MJC to assist with legal support,” said Mohamed.
Isaacs works as a forensic pathologist at 2 Wynberg military hospital and been in the employ of the SANDF for ten years. According to Mohamed, the scarf does not obstruct any military rankings or insignia, are without decoration or markings, and is worn under her formal military beret. Over the past decade, Isaacs’s hijab has been met with some resistance and various commanders have asked her to remove her scarf, while others had been in support of her when she requested to cover her head.
However, Mohamed said Isaacs’ current ranking officer has been “victimising” her to remove the scarf. She was served with a final written warning but still refused to remove the scarf. The ranking officer then proceeded with the disciplinary hearing.
“There seemed to be disagreement amongst the different colonels and operational commanders. Some allowed her to wear a scarf, while others refused. This case has been coming on for a long time.”
This is the first time a case of the right to wear the headscarf is being tested in a SANDF military court.
Mohamed said the case is not isolated and goes beyond victimisation and harassment.
“There seems to be Islamophobia in the SANDF and with respect to Fatima, she is tackling it head on. The situation is far more serious than what we believe,” she said.
“Fatima is passionate about the SANDF, she loves being of service to her country and she enjoys wearing the uniform. So I cannot understand what the fuss is about. This is clearly an Islamophobia issue and needs to be rooted out.”
Mohamed believes it’s a case of certain ranking officials acting with impunity.
“The officers have this approach that the Constitution doesn’t apply to them and they can do what they like. I don’t believe that the colonel doesn’t know the Constitution and the Bill of Rights applies to them because how can you work in the services of the SANDF, be a colonel and be in charge and not know of these things. If we have high ranking members in the military who are not aware of these rights, then I shudder to think of what is happening in the SANDF.”
If there is no success at the military court, she has vowed to take the matter as far as the Constitutional Court.
SANDF spokesperson Mafi Mgobhozi declined to comment on the case.