Barbados TODAY is a publication I am proud to associate with and one that has given me the privilege to write a column weekly for over a year now. I see this column as a wonderful opportunity to write on issues and give commentary on matters that otherwise may not be brought to the fore, or be written about from a perspective such as I may have.
I thank all those who take the time to read it and send me comments.
I would also like to use this column to correct, from my viewpoint, any misinformation or misconceptions that arise from time to time. In this regard I must point out an inaccuracy in the Editorial of Barbados TODAY of January 7.
The Editorial, titled Mixing Religion With Some Common Sense, sought to weigh in on the issue of Muslim and Rastafarian ladies seeking accommodation in wearing their headdress for official photo purposes. This issue I wrote about last week and introduced the concept of “reasonable accommodation” in regard to persons seeking allowances under freedom of expression of religious beliefs as enshrined in the Constitution.
The Editorial states:
This brings us to the storm in the teacup that has come to the fore with respect to citizens or residents of Barbados seeking to avail themselves of social services but wanting to use religious beliefs or practices to conduct their affairs outside the boundaries of the law or sensible stipulations. Recently, there has been a case of a Muslim woman objecting to removing her hijab while seeking to have a photograph taken for a National Identification Card, passport and driver’s licence.
We consider it ludicrous to even debate the efficacy of attempting to take a photograph for facial identification when the face cannot be seen. We consider it quite ridiculous for any state agency to keep official picture identification of citizens when their faces cannot be discerned.
Whether there was a specific law or not governing the taking of photographs for official documents, the stipulation that requires the face to be seen makes complete sense in the interest of record-keeping, the protection of individual citizens and the rule of law.
There are several propositions in this part of the Editorial that need correction and clarification. Firstly, what really is intended by the statement “seeking to avail themselves of social services but wanting to use religious beliefs or practices to conduct their affairs outside the boundaries of the law or sensible stipulations”?
Apart from being patronizing, it is totally erroneous to even suggest that well-intentioned Muslim or Rastafarian ladies want to conduct their affairs illegally or foolishly.
Secondly, as ludicrous as the writer of this Editorial thinks it is to have a photograph with a face veil on for official photos, equally ludicrous do we think it is to even suggest that is what is being requested. Neither the Muslims nor the Rastafarians are asking for allowance for photos with the face veil.
And that argument has been, either deliberately or unintentionally, put forward by several others who chose to weigh in publically via social media and on the call-in programmes. This misinformation has added fuel to a phobia and a negativity about headdress that exists among some in our society.
Apart from this Editorial, the matter was also addressed by the Attorney General. As reported in Barbados TODAY of January 4, under the headline We are exposed!, “Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite warned that Barbados was exposed now more than ever to threats of international terrorism, while stating that Government was prepared to meet local Muslims and Rastafarians halfway on the controversial requirement that female members remove their headdress when taking official photographs”.
He went on to acknowledge that “a proposed amendment to the law, which would allow both Muslim and Rastafarian women to keep on their headdress, while ensuring their faces are shown, had been before the Electoral Office for some time”.
He also revealed: “They [Electoral Office] are proposing an amendment to the regulations that would enable people to maintain their headdress while enabling us to be able to satisfy ourselves that the person sitting in front of us, and the persons whose photograph we are taking, and the person, when you present the photograph, is the same individual. So that’s being addressed, in other words . . . .
“It is being addressed because they have looked at best practices across the world and want to ensure that we can accommodate people’s religious beliefs, while satisfying our own national security requirements.”
I am happy to hear the Attorney General acknowledging that this matter has been before them for some time and that a proposed amendment to the law would allow both Muslim and Rastafarian women to keep their headdress on while ensuring their faces are shown. It is also satisfying to know that the authorities have looked at best practices across the world.
The reality is that having recently sat with a group of Rastafarian men and ladies to discuss this issue, exactly what the Attorney General is proposing is what both groups are simply seeking accommodation for. Allowance for both Muslim and Rastafarian women to keep on their headdress, while ensuring their faces are shown. Nothing more! They are not demanding anything nor are they seeking to conduct their affairs outside the boundaries of the law or sensible stipulations.
The Attorney General, by acknowledging that they have looked at best practices across the world, would agree and recognize that most places accommodate people’s religious beliefs through sensible stipulations. As I pointed out last week (and gave examples), a simple search of photo requirements for official documents in several countries would reveal those best practices alluded to by the Attorney General.
I do hope that the Attorney General would help bring closure to several years of frustration by both Muslim and Rastafarian ladies who are the ones who are truly “exposed” when they are asked to remove their headdress.
As to the linking of this issue to terrorism and national security concerns, I find it extremely disconcerting that several persons, including the Attorney General, have chosen this route when commenting on women and their right to wear headdress for religious reasons. Surely such comments also increase sensitivities on an already sensitive issue and play right into the mindset that all persons of a particular persuasion are tainted by the actions of some.
How can anyone surmise that the wearing of a religiously mandated headdress is equal to concern for national security? Our country is facing an increasing threat of gun and gang-related violence never experienced before. Alerts as a result of this violence from some countries to their citizens wishing to visit Barbados are a threat to our tourism. Even the prolonged water shortages in the north and east of island have been deemed national security issues placing our stability at risk.
How therefore can a female, Rastafarian or Muslim, seeking to fulfil her religious obligations in the way she dresses be considered a security risk?
National security considerations must be given for every individual who applies for official documentation in Barbados, with or without a headdress. To do otherwise is to religiously profile individuals, which I know is not what Barbados stands for.
There is an urgent and important need to have a conversation and discussion on this entire issue, as many aspects are unresolved or totally blown out of proportion. We must be able to talk to each other rather than at each other.
In this regard I invite all to a public lecture/discussion next Tuesday, January 19, at 7 p.m. at The Grand Salle, Central Bank of Barbados, by visiting East African scholar of Islam, Shaykh Faid Muhammad Said.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, and secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association.