Cape Town – In a groundbreaking decision, the South African Defence Force (SANDF) has amended its military religious dress policy to accommodate the wearing of a headscarf with military uniform.
This followed the three-year- battle of Major Fatima Isaacs, a Muslim woman who wore a headscarf covering her hair and head under her military beret in accordance with her religious beliefs since she officially joined the force in February 2010.
In June 2018, she was instructed that the wearing of the headscarf was contrary to the SANDF dress policy instruction amendment number 5: Wearing of Religious and Medical Adornments by SANDF Members in Uniform (2002) (Religious Dress Policy).
Compliance with the policy would require the removal of her headscarf, which would be against her religious beliefs. Accordingly, when she was ordered to remove the headscarf she was unable to obey the order.
She was initially given a final warning and was subsequently charged with three counts of contravening section 19(1) of the Military Discipline Code: disobeying lawful commands or orders.
The Legal Resources Centre (LRC) representing Isaacs took on the case in 2019, leading to the military court withdrawing its charges against her in January last year.
The LRC then turned to the Equality Court to challenge the Military's Religious Dress Code Policy, which was still being enforced.
“We have since been engaged in discussions with the SANDF and as a result, the SANDF has amended their policy to allow Muslim women to wear their hijab with their military uniform.
“We have therefore filed a Notice of Withdrawal in the Equality Court and will not be pursuing this matter further as the policy no longer discriminates against Muslim women in the military,” the LRC said in a statement yesterday.
SANDF spokesperson Brigadier-General Mafi Mgobhozi confirmed the amendment, saying: “The Military Religious Dress Policy was updated accordingly which allows a Muslim woman to wear her scarf.”
Isaacs told the Cape Times that this was an important victory, not only for her, but for all those who were silently victimised because of their religion.
“I am happy with the successful outcome of the case, I am grateful to my legal team for assisting me.
“We are living in a democratic country which means that there should be no discrimination with regards to religious beliefs. I believe religion is the foundation of a moral state/country. This is an important victory,” she said.
The Muslim Judicial Council SA (MJC) welcomed the final outcome.
“The MJC in its capacity as the Religious Advisory Board for Muslims in the SANDF had meaningful engagements with senior members of the SANDF Chaplaincy regarding the case of Major Fatima and was confident that the matter would be resolved amicably.
“We salute Major Fatima Isaacs for her steadfastness to secure this outcome for all Muslim women serving the SANDF,” first deputy president Abdul Khaliq Allie said.
Islamia College chief executive Shaykh Sadullah Khan also lauded the decision, saying: “The amendment of the SANDF to its dress code policy is welcomed with joy.
’’This follows the withdrawing of the unwarranted charges against Major Isaacs.
’’The resolution is lauded and should serve as a precedent for future considerations in matters pertaining to religious or cultural sensitivities.”