Sunday Times STLive By TENESHIA NAIDOO, 2012-01-29

Home Affairs orders headscarves off

A Libyan woman is reflected in a mirror as she looks at headscarves displayed on plastic models at a market stall in central Tripoli

Muslim women and a watchdog body are seeking urgent clarification from the Minister of Home Affairs regarding the wearing of headscarves at airports and in passport photographs.

This follows complaints to South African Muslim Network (Samnet) after several incidents in which Muslim women were told that they could not wear headscarves in their passport pictures. They were told to remove their headdress.

Freelance journalist Fatima Asmal-Motala said last year she was prevented from getting her passport photo taken at a Home Affairs office in Durban because of her headscarf.

"I told them 'no' because I had my licence and everything else with my head covered. They told me if I submit it with my head covered I would be turned down."

After Asmal-Motala persisted, they eventually took the photographs and submitted the paperwork. However, the staff were correct and her passport was not issued. "I was desperate for a passport so I took a photograph without my headscarf," she said.

In another incident, political lecturer Quraysha Ismail Sooliman lodged a complaint with Home Affairs after she and her daughters were "harassed" by a female customs official upon their arrival and departure at OR Tambo.

In her letter, Sooliman said her daughter, Shaakira Yousef, was told to remove her headscarf so the official could see her eyes and her hair.

"She also asked my daughter where she got her passport from and proceeded to tell her that she shouldn't have had a photograph with her headscarf.

"We are South African citizens and highly offended by this attitude. If rights are being violated due to ignorance by Home Affairs officials, then such behaviour needs to be corrected," she said in her letter.

She added that on departing South Africa her youngest daughter, Iram, 16, was treated in the same manner.

Sooliman said she was "extremely disappointed" and was shocked at the attitude.

"This behaviour raises some serious questions. Is there religious freedom in South Africa or is it also going to be eroded? Is there legislation that states that Muslim women cannot submit photographs for passports or ID documents with a headscarf?"

She said if security were an issue and identity needed to be established, then a female officer should take the passenger to a private area to be checked.

In a letter addressed to the Minister of Home Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Samnet chairman Faisal Suliman asked for "urgent and complete clarity" on the requirements for passport photographs and identity checks at airports.

He added that, to avoid humiliation, all immigration officials needed to be informed and trained on how to handle such issues.

The Department of Home Affairs did not comment.