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Unveiling Muslim girls at Makerere University

On December 30, the Makerere University mosque could not handle the number of worshipers that had come for the Friday sermon.

Designed to accommodate one thousand worshipers, the house was filled to the brim. Hundreds of worshippers had to find space outside in order not to miss the sermon. But this congregation grew to this magnitude not just for prayer. They were gathering for a protest. Earlier, on December 27, Dr Eria Olowo Onyango had pulled Zaituni Namujju (BA Social Sciences) from the examination room for dressing “illegally”.

It was after she had agreed to undress that she was deemed legally dressed to write the exam.  Removing the veil in public for well-bred Muslim girls is undressing, and the victim reported discomfort as she went back to the exam room, naked. Whatever penal code or regulation the professor was reading, we may never know.
The exchange between our two protagonists before Namujju agrees to undress is quite fascinating:

Dr Onyango: Where did you pass? (Namujju looks on not sure whether the question is calling for an answer). Aren’t you aware that you are not supposed to enter the examination room with headgears?

Namujju: But this is my veil, not a headgear. The story goes that Namujju was asked to walk out of the room.  When she attempted to plead with the help of one female teacher, the mighty Onyango charged: “This is the law; I can’t lose my job just because of you. If you think I want to admire your hair, I have a wife. Go to the Islamic university if you want to veil.”

In 2009, an almost similar incident happened. Aisha Nankya (BSc Education) was faced with a decision between her veil and the exam. Even when she pleaded to undress for any female lecturer for a thorough check, Ms Anne Ampaire insisted that the veil was illegal. She lambasted her student, that she wasn’t “special” and so there was no point wasting her time.

After the Onyango-Namujju affair, the Vice Chancellor, Prof Venansius Baryamureeba, wrote to the Muslim students regretting the incident. Drawing attention to rules generated in 2008, he said the university didn’t have a dress code, and all female students, Muslim or non-Muslim, were to be checked by female supervisors and were free to wear their religious garments and enter the exam room.

Even with this clarification, lecturers continue forcing Muslim students to remove their symbolic dresses. In another mindboggling incident, Dr Elias State (interesting pun) of the school of Social Sciences announced to his Muslim students that in his exam and his classes, students dressed in kanzus, turbans and veils were not welcome.

Dr State’s declaration aside for its stark oddness, the easy assumptions for unveiling Muslims could be that extra or capacious garments are used to disguise identity or for smuggling illegal material into the examination. But when students agree to undress for scrutiny and are willing to provide proper identification, then the claim does not stand.

Responses, especially from Muslims have dismissed Onyango, State, Ampaire and Co. as demented, ignorant and overzealous Christianists, culturalists or atheists. It’s tempting. Onyango pointed out to Namujju that he feared losing his job. This suggests he understood the unfairness of his action, but the fear of poverty blurred his reasoning. This could be true, but the Vice Chancellor’s letter exposed him as having been acting on his whims — the university has no regulation against the veil. What then explains this thought-stopping fury against innocent Muslim girls and their dresses?

In September 2010, Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove Outreach Church in Florida, United States, threatened to burn copies of the Qur’an. Well, even after many sober voices had advised him not to, he did so in April 2011. Many dismissed him as demented and notorious. But this is barely scratching the surface of a rather big problem. Surely, the well-meaning pastor is a victim of a narrative — one that has branded Islam as evil — and by extension, the Qur’an and all the symbols that represent it.

Post 9/11 has set in motion a series of reactions in all aspects of the public life in ways that are unprecedented. Responses in Afghanistan, Iraq and actions at airport security points that target Muslims premised on fictions such as “a clash of civilisation” are dividing communities in ways hard to imagine.  So many bogus stereotypes are constantly regurgitated on radio, TV and in print: Islam embraces violence; they hate us for our liberties and women’s rights; they are barbaric and anti-modern.

Lazy professors and journalists are consuming these fictions, disseminating and acting on them.  State, Onyango, Ampaire and Pastor Terry Jones are not the problem; they are victims of the problem. Countering the wrong narrative through re-education might help rescue the situation.

The author is a student of international politics.


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