Congo-Brazzaville bans Muslim women from wearing full veil; becomes first African country to do so

Authorities say decision taken to prevent any 'act of terrorism and insecurity'

CONGO-Brazzaville has banned Muslim women from wearing the full face-veil in public, citing security reasons, an Islamic association told news agency AFP on Saturday.

“The Interior Minister (Raymond Zephirin Mboulou) notified us of the decision to prohibit Muslim women from wearing the full veil. The decision was taken in order to prevent any act of terrorism and insecurity,” said El Hadj Abdoulaye Djibril Bopaka, who heads the Islamic Supreme Council of Congo-Brazzaville.

“Muslim women can now only wear the full veil at home and in places of worship, but not in public places,” he said, adding that only a tiny minority of women in Congo-Brazzaville actually cover their faces and entire bodies.

The ban does not affect any other kind of veil, leaving exempt the hijab which is more of a headscarf, and the niqab, which leaves an opening for the eyes. Other variants such as the khimar, shayla, al amira and chador were also not mentioned.

Bopaka said the authorities had made a “good” move, citing reports that “some non-Muslims have been using the full veil to hide and to carry out uncivic acts”.

Congo-Brazzaville is home to some 800,000 Muslims in a population of nearly six million. Only 10% are local with the rest coming from Arab or neighbouring west African nations.

Unlike its neighbour Cameroon, which has suffered fierce attacks by the Nigeria-based jihadist group Boko Haram, Congo-Brazzaville has not been hit by any such terror attacks.

Targeting the Muslim veil usually also arouses issues of personal freedom and religion in addition to security. The Congo-Brazzaville’s move would make it the first country to do so in the region. 

Globally, only Belgium and France have a national ban on wearing the burqa in public, with fines in place for violation, but even Muslim majority countries have considered restrictions, mainly on security concerns.

A handful of other countries have local bans such as Russia and Switzerland, but none in Africa. Tunisia spent the last year debating the issue, but there has been no clear outcome on government plans to tighten restrictions on the veil.

The country has dabbled with issue since the 1950s.

Almost one third of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims reside in Africa, with early accounts of Islam presence spanning back to the 7th century. The religion is predominant in the northern half of Africa—North Africa, the Horn and Sahel, and West Africa.

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