Banning and Burning the Burqa in Muslim Chad

Why the Muslim-majority country is outlawing the Islamic attire.

Stephen Brown// While people who oppose the wearing of facial coverings by Muslim women are routinely accused of Islamophobia, the Muslim-majority nation of Chad has not only banned such garments but ordered one variety, the burqa, burned.

“Wearing the burqa must stop immediately from today, not only in public places and schools but throughout the whole of the country,” said Prime Minister Kalzeube Pahimi Deubet, Chad’s ruler since 1990.

The central African country of 13.5 million people took this unprecedented step after at least two burqa-wearing suicide bombers, reportedly men in disguise, staged co-ordinated terrorist attacks in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, last June 15. The targets were the city’s police headquarters and the police academy. The resulting carnage saw 38 people killed, including four terrorists, and dozens more wounded. Though no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, Chadian authorities blame the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, based in nearby Nigeria.

The terrorist attacks, regarded by some as the country’s 9/11, shocked the Chadian public, as they were the first ever to take place in country’s capital. One African newspaper reported bomb fragments from the attacks were sent to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Almost immediately after the twin assaults, a nationwide ban was announced against wearing clothing that covers the face. Anyone violating the ban will be “arrested, tried and sentenced in summary proceedings.” Prime Minister Deubet stated security authorities were also ordered to enter markets “to seize all burqas on sale and burn them.” He also banned facial coverings that leave only the eyes uncovered, such as the niqab, calling them “camouflage.”

Deubet announced the burqa ban to religious leaders at the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Chad, a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, is about 53 percent Muslim, the majority of whom are Sufi, and 35 percent Christian. Some Chadians still practice traditional African religions. Deubet asked the religious leaders to spread news of the ban in “mosques, churches and other holy places.”

It is believed Chad, a U.S. ally in Africa’s anti-jihad coalition, was targeted for the June attack because of its leading, and effective, role in fighting the Nigerian Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram, which is known worldwide for its slaughter of innocent civilians and enslavement of young women. Boko Haram had controlled an area in northern Nigeria ‘about the size of Belgium” until earlier this year when Chad and Cameroon sent troops to help the Nigerian government forces. Their joint efforts won back large areas from Boko Haram.

Boko Haram fighters met Chadian troops in battle last February in Cameroon and probably wished they hadn’t. The respected military news publication, Strategy Page, reported the Boko Haram force lost more than 200 men in the ensuing clash. In another battle, Boko Haram attacked a combined Cameroonian-Chadian force, losing more than 100 fighters for nine Cameroonian dead. But the Boko Haram murderers killed 70 civilians and burned down a mosque before retreating.

“Chad has already moved 2,500 troops into Cameroon and Niger and these soldiers have clashed with Boko Haram several times and surprised the Islamic terrorists by quickly winning these clashes,” Strategy Page states.

As a result of its defeats and territorial losses, it is therefore not surprising that Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened Chad and other countries helping Nigeria. And N’Djamena would make a prime target to carry out such threats. Besides being Chad’s capital, it is also the headquarters for the regional force fighting Boko Haram. Three thousand French troops engaged in the terror war are also stationed there.

The terrorist carnage in N’Djemena did not stop, however, with the double suicide attack. Two weeks later, five Chadian security officials were killed when Boko Haram operatives blew themselves up during a police raid. Chadian authorities also arrested 60 terrorist suspects after the June 15 attacks, many of them foreigners. This led to the dismantling of a terrorist cell, seizure of weapons and documents, closing of a bomb-making facility and arrest of a leading Boko Haram recruiter and weapons purchaser.

“Boko Haram is making a mistake by targeting Chad,” said Hassan Sylla Bakari, the country’s communications minister. “These lawless terrorists will be chased out and neutralised wherever they are.”

The use of burqas and other face-covering Islamic clothing for illegal or terroristic purposes is not new. Even in pre-revolutionary Russia, Bolshevik terrorists in the Caucuses under Stalin were said to dress up in women’s Islamic clothing to avoid detection when operating an “invaluable” underground press.

“The typesetters, and probably Stalin too, arrived and left dressed as Muslim women in veils,” wrote Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore.

There have been bans on burqa- and niqab-wearing in Islamic countries in the past, but they were usually temporary and local. Egyptian universities, for example, banned them in 2009 from women’s dormitories because men were donning them to gain access to the all-female facilities. In justifying the ban, the Egyptian minister of higher education stated seventeen men disguised in such veils had been arrested inside women’s dorms the previous year.

Although this ban was later lifted, the Egyptian government placed another one on women’s Islamic face-coverings at universities when writing exams. The reason given was that “students, both male and female, were attending exams disguised as other candidates by wearing a face veil.”

But as the deadly threat of Islamic terrorism grows worldwide, it is inevitable more countries will have to face the question of what to do regarding the burqa and other, face-concealing Islamic garb. Chad may have done them a favour in this respect. While African countries are usually the ones being offered advice, the central African nation is instead giving other countries a lesson they can follow. The Chadian government is showing that it favours the security, safety and well-being of its citizens more than any possible hurt religious feelings. More importantly, it is showing it has the courage to do so. And as Muslim-majority nation banning face coverings, Chad can serve both as an example, and reference, for countries, especially non-Muslim ones, wishing to do the same.

In making the ban acceptable, though, it is important to note, as one observer has pointed out, that the Chadian government emphasised its action is not anti-religious. It was taken simply for security reasons and not because the face-coverings are regarded as socially divisive, as they are in some Western countries. It is the misuse of religious clothing to destroy human life that Chad is challenging. Authorities stressed the security aspect by also adopting other measures after the June attacks, such as outlawing tinted windshields.

The same observer also states that Saudi Arabia is currently in the same position as Chad, as women’s clothing covering the body from head to toe “has been used as camouflage in several successful and attempted terrorist attacks.” But it is unlikely Saudi Arabia will ever follow Chad’s example. Unlike Chad, in Saudi Arabia the religious importance of women’s garb still trumps human life. This was proven when Saudi religious police once forced school girls back into a burning residence they had fled because they weren’t properly covered. Tragically for its citizens, Saudi Arabia will probably never learn, as Chad has, that it is better to let the face-coverings burn rather than the women who wear them.