22 January 2020 – Press Release: Military Court Withdraws Charges Against Major Isaacs

Press Release: Military Court Withdraws Charges Agaisnt Major Isaacs

22 January 2020

Major Isaacs is a Muslim woman who is currently employed by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). Major Isaacs wears a headscarf covering her hair and head in accordance with her religious beliefs. She has been wearing a headscarf under her beret since she officially joined the SANDF and was required to wear a uniform in February 2010.

In June 2018, she was instructed that the wearing of the headscarf was contrary to the SANDF Dress Policy Instruction Amendment No 5: Wearing of Religious and Medical Adornments by SANDF Members in Uniform (2002) (Religious Dress Policy). Compliance with the policy would require the removal of her headscarf, which would be against her religious beliefs. Accordingly, when she was ordered to remove the headscarf she was unable to obey the order. She was initially given a final wearing and was subsequently criminally charged with three counts of contravening section 19(1) of the Military Discipline Code: disobeying lawful commands or orders.

On 01 November 2019 the Cape Town office of the Legal Resource Centre (LRC) submitted written representation to the Director: Military Prosecutions on behalf of Major Fatima Isaacs. In its submissions, the LRC submitted that criminal charges against Major Isaacs should be withdrawn as there were neither consistent with the Constitution, nor in the interests of justice. Moreover, the orders on which the charges were based on a policy that is unconstitutional to the extent that it limited her rights to freedom religion, equality and dignity.

Today, 22 January 2020, the Military Prosecution withdrew all the charges against Major Isaacs. The withdrawal of charges is subject to her compliance with certain restrictions relating to the wearing of the headscarf. The restrictions mandate Major Isaacs to wear a tight headscarf that does not cover her ears, and must be plain in colour.

While there is some relief that the criminal charges have been withdrawn, this withdrawal does not address the unconstitutional Religious Dress Policy, in fact the policy remains in force as it is without any amendments to it. Further, compliance with the restrictions is not a guarantee that she will not be criminally charged again for wearing her religious headscarf which is currently against the Religious Dress Policy. As a result, Major Isaacs represented by the LRC, has filed an application in the Equality Court. The application filed seeks to challenge the constitutionality of the Religious Dress Policy to ensure that she does not continue to constantly fear being criminally charged for wearing her headscarf and that she is able to enjoy her constitutional rights without fear or prejudice.

For more information, please contact:

Amy-Leigh Payne, Legal Resources Centre, Cape Town amyleigh@lrc.org.za

Tad Khosa, Legal Resources Centre (National Communications), tad@lrc.org.za

The LRC is an independent, non-profit, public interest law clinic, which uses law as an instrument of justice to provide legal services for the vulnerable.