Mozambique: Moslem Groups Make Threats Over Burqas

Maputo, Mozambique - Moslem organisations are trying to force the Mozambican government to reverse its ban on the wearing of burqas in public school, and are even threatening a "popular revolt" unless the government changes its mind.

The burqa resembles a black tent which completely envelops a woman's body, leaving just a narrow slit for her eyes. Wearing the burqa is not mandated in the Koran, and the vast majority of moslem women across the globe do not wear it. It is very rare to see women wearing burqas in Mozambique.

The current dispute over burqas in schools was sparked off by one student, Fatima Khalifa, who insisted on wearing a burqa to her classes in the Fraternidade Secondary School in Pemba, capital of the northern province of Cabo Delgado. The teachers refused to teach classes containing a student shrouded in a such a garment, but Khalifa insisted that she was within her rights to wear a burqa

The dispute dragged on for weeks, until Education Minister Zeferino Martins visited Pemba and suspended Khalifa from the school. He told reporters that wearing overt religious clothing such as a burqa violated the fundamental principles governing state-run schools.

He was backed up by Justice Minister Benvinda Levi, who declared that religious freedom means that citizens can freely practice the religion of their choice, without interference from the state - but it does not mean that they can impose that religion on the state.

Students, she said, must respect school regulations. "It cannot be accepted that each student invokes the name of their religion in the loudest tones in the schools", she said.

She pointed out that burqas are a recent arrival in Mozambique. "Our country has many people who profess this same religion", said Levi, "but they don't wear burqas in the schools where they study".

It was thought that Khalifa was an isolated case - no other incident involving a pupil wearing a burqa was mentioned in the Mozambican press. But three moslem leaders have now claimed that "more than 90" girls have been excluded from schools in the northern city of Nampula for wearing the burqa.

According to a report in Monday's issue of the independent daily "O Pais", Abibo Amade, of the Islamic Conference of Mozambique, Momade Tuahir, of the Islamic Council of Mozambique, and Abdul Latifo, of the Islamic Community, made this claim at a Nampula press conference. No list of the schools or pupils concerned has been published, however.

The three moslem leaders claimed that excluding students wearing the burqa violates the constitutionally enshrined right to education. However, Levi pointed out that schools have rules about what can be worn in the classroom, and nobody has the right to break those rules in the name of their religion.

Amade, Tuahir and Latifo claimed that the government's position leads to the "social exclusion" of moslems and relegates them to "the third category in society".

"The veil is a religious symbol and even Christian nuns use it", they claimed. "It seeks to avoid the sexual harassment women suffer when exposing their sensitive parts, and there is no legislation about its non-use in the country".

Thus, for these three moslem men, everything about a woman's body except her eyes is "sensitive".

The burqa is also not the same thing as a veil, and catholic nuns, who are all adults, are unlikely to be found behind the desks of primary or secondary schools.

The three said that they will soon present a formal document to Martins and Levy in an attempt to find solutions, but then claimed that, if the government does not retreat, there could be a "popular revolt".

"We are in favour of dialogue but, if our possibilities are exhausted, we shall resort to other means of protest", they threatened.

According to the 2007 census, about 18 per cent of the Mozambican population are moslems, though the percentage is much higher in the north of the country.