Muslim women in the South African military can now wear hijabs with their uniforms following a change in dress policy which involved a three-year court battle.
The case had started sometime in 2018 after a Muslim soldier, Maj. Fatima Isaacs, was instructed that the wearing of the headscarf was contrary to the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and ordered to remove the headscarf. Maj. Isaacs insisted it was against her religious beliefs and so refused to obey the order.
The Maj said she had worn the 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.
For disobeying the order, she was criminally charged with three counts of contravening section 19(1) of the Military Discipline Code: disobeying lawful commands or orders.
Maj Isaacs had faced dismissal for “wilful defiance and disobeying a lawful command” for refusing to remove it.
In 2019, the Legal Resource Centre (LRC), a rights group took up her case. Last year, military charges against her were dropped and it was agreed that Maj Isaacs could wear a headscarf that was tight, did not cover her ears and which was plain in colour – though the dress code did not officially change.
So the LRC filed an application at the Equality Court, arguing that the religious dress code of the SANDF was unconstitutional.
However, subsequent discussions had resulted in the defence force “amending its religious dress policy to allow Muslim women to wear their hijab with their military uniform”, the LRC tweeted.
“We will therefore not be pursuing this matter further as the current SANDF policy no longer discriminates against Muslim women in the military.”
It is a victory for Maj. Fatima Isaacs, who led a three-year legal battle for her religious right to wear a headscarf beneath her military beret.
Maj. Isaacs, who works as a clinical forensic pathologist at a military hospital, told the Cape Times it was a victory not only for her, but all people who were “silently victimised” because of their religion.
“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 told the paper.
She also thanked the Legal Resource Centre (LRC), a rights group which took up her case in 2019.