N’Djamena (AFP) – Chad’s decision to ban women from wearing the Islamic veil, which came two days after bloody suicide attacks hit the capital, has divided Muslims, but the government is defending it as part of of an anti-terrorism strategy.
“The wearing of the burqa must cease immediately from today,” Prime Minister Kalzeube Pahimi Deubet told religious leaders on Wednesday, after the twin bombings killed 33 and injured more than 100 in the capital N’Djamena.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but authorities blame the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram, which has carried out numerous suicide bombings inside Nigeria over the past six years, sometimes by women who hid explosives under modest outer clothing.
The Chadian army led a regional military effort to fight Boko Haram as the militant sect expanded its activities beyond Nigeria’s northeastern borders. After Monday’s explosions, the Chadian air force bombed Boko Haram positions inside Nigeria.
Many Muslim women in N’Djamena wear the full veil with only the eyes exposed, known as the niqab, which is usually black. But Deubet forbids any garment “of which only the eyes are visible”.
In a country where Muslims make up 53% of the population – Christians make up 35% – the ban on the Islamic veil, including the burqa covering the full face, has drawn mixed reactions.
Abdelsadick Djidda, a 45-year-old teacher, said the decision was “made for our safety”.
“Wearing the burqa does not stem from Chadian culture,” he said. “It comes from elsewhere. And it is not recommended anywhere in the holy book (the Koran).”
Jidda added: “As a Muslim, I think people are going a bit too far with this cover-up.”
– ‘Seize all the burqas on sale’ –
Other Muslims are shocked by the decision, which comes as the holy fasting month of Ramadan begins.
Hassan Barka, a mechanic, said he did not see the connection between the burqa and terrorism.
“It’s not people in burkas who commit assaults and this outfit has become customary for many Chadians,” said Barka, a mechanic. “It is difficult to implement this decision. Maybe it takes time to educate the public.
The harsh ban is a first in Africa. Some countries like Tunisia have ordered similar measures before due to a growing risk of terrorist attacks, but these were partial and temporary measures.
The Chadian regime ordered security forces “to enter the markets and seize all the burqas on sale and burn them”, while warning of arrest and summary trial anyone caught wearing the veil and of the dress.
“The Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (CSAI) believes that the government’s decision is not contrary to the principles of Islam,” said influential CSAI president Cheick Hussein Hassan Abakar.
In a poor nation that bears deep scars after bloody inter-religious clashes during a civil war in 1979-1982, President Idriss Deby Itno has long been suspicious of the emergence of extremist movements.
In power since 1990, when he overthrew dictator Hissène Habré – who is due to stand trial in Senegal for crimes against humanity on July 20 – Deby has repeatedly stressed that “the secular nature of the state is a essential value”.
– “Very tolerant Islam” –
“We are lucky to have a very tolerant Islam. Muslims in Chad are mostly Sufis, they are pacifists,” said the secretary general of King Fayçal University in N’Djamena, Abakar Walar Modou.
“But Islam can be manipulated. During (the civil war), politicians tried to throw Christians and Muslims into chaos,” he recalled.
While Boko Haram is gaining ground towards N’Djamena, bordering a narrow Cameroonian strip which separates it from Nigeria, the authorities have redoubled their surveillance of the capital.
The regime seeks to prevent radical Islam from taking root in Chad, where conservative Wahhabis and Salafis make up between 5 and 10 percent of Muslims, according to the US State Department.
“The Boko Haram phenomenon has so far had no impact on the population, but the risk is there,” warned Walar Modou.
“The CSAI closely monitors Koranic teachings, preaching in mosques and even the radio,” he added.
Last March, the authorities dissolved a Salafist association considered a risk to public order. The international watchdog Freedom House reported in 2013 the banning of some Islamic charities operating in poor neighborhoods.
“The outright banning of an association is not a solution,” said Walar Modou. “You can’t stop an ideology that way, it causes frustration.”