Malawi is taking efforts to allow Muslim students in all educational institutions to wear the hijab, or headscarf. In the primarily Christian country, some schools have been compelled to close due to the contentious subject.
The hijab has long been a source of controversy in Malawi, particularly in Christian-run institutions where female Muslim students are not permitted to cover their heads in class.
In October, suspected enraged Muslims in eastern Malawi “set fire” to the office of a Catholic elementary school head teacher who had turned away students wearing the garment.
Several Christian primary schools in the Muslim-dominated region were forced to close as a result of the standoff.
As a result, the Ministry of Education asked the quasi-religious Public Affairs Committee, or PAC, to assist in the resolution of the issue.
According to Gilford Matonga, a PAC spokesperson, a compromise has to be found.
“One of the recommendations is that the Islamic girl child is allowed to wear the hijab that matches the school uniform wherever they are going to school. On the other side is that no girl child shall be forced to put on the hijab if they wish not to put on [the hijab],” Matonga said.
Abdul-Salaam Faduweck is the spokesperson for the Hijab Task Force, a section of the Muslim Association of Malawi that has advocated for the scarves to be worn in all Malawian schools.
He stated that the task committee has accepted the PAC’s recommendation and that the school uniforms will be in line with a full hijab.
“We need the uniform to be according to the understanding of the meaning of hijab itself. If it is a skirt it has to be a long skirt, it has to be loose not tight. If it is a blouse it has to be with a long sleeve and not very tight. And the learner has to cover the head with a scarf. That is a complete hijab,” Faduweck said.
The idea, according to Imran Sheriff, a religious studies lecturer at the University of Malawi, is somewhat unworkable, especially since the headscarf is also considered part of the school uniform in Muslim schools.
“The putting on a hijab is based on religion and putting on school uniform is based on school regulations in order that the students should look equal. So, if it is an Islamic institution, if the hijab is part of the uniform, then everybody will be obliged [to put on a headscarf],” Sheriff said.
According to Michael Kaiyatsa, executive director of Malawi’s Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, the moment has come for Malawi to allow all religious symbols into schools in order to encourage religious harmony.
“It shouldn’t be Muslims or a particular religion. If we allow, then it should be across the board. If people are allowed to come to schools with rosaries around their necks, then why shouldn’t we allow other religions to do the same?” Kaiyatsa asked.
According to Matonga of the PAC, the ideas will be presented to education officials next week for their opinion.
However, because they haven’t received the suggestions yet, education officials said they couldn’t comment on the topic right now.