Plans by the Senegalese government to prohibit women from wearing full-body veils, amid growing security concerns, have sparked debate within the majority-Muslim country.
Interior Minister Abdoulaye Diallo said on Tuesday that the need to prevent potential attacks was behind a government’s decision to outlaw the full-body veil, which leaves only the eyes uncovered.
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“The full veil is not a religious affair and it does not represent our culture,” Diallo told local media, echoing comments made earlier in the week by Senegalese President Macky Sall.
Speaking at a peace and security conference in the capital Dakar, Sall said the veil was a security threat because suicide bombers have used it in the past to hide explosives and carry out attacks.
“For security reasons, all Senegalese people must support the president in this sense,” Diallo said.
An estimated 94 percent of the Senegalese population is Muslim. Most people are members of one of the four main Sufi brotherhoods, which are said to limit the influence of Salafi groups in the West African country.
Yet lately, there have been rising fears that groups like the Nigeria-based Boko Haram are finding sympathisers in Senegal, prompting authorities to launch a security crackdown against people with suspected ties with armed groups.
At least four religious leaders were arrested in the capital Dakar, as well as in the city of Kaolack, in recent weeks.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Bakary Sambe, head of the Observatory on Religious Radicalism and Conflicts in Africa, said the government was right in proposing the veil ban as a security precaution to avoid suicide attacks, similar to the ones that rocked other countries in the region recently.
“It’s a necessity,” he said. “We have to be very careful.”
Last July, Chadian authorities banned the wearing of full veils in public places after a Boko Haram attacker who used one to disguise himself as a woman caused an explosion at a busy market in the capital, N’Djamena, killing at least 15 people and injuring 80. Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon also banned the full-body veil earlier this year.
“The president has the right to be preventive – see what happened in Chad and other countries,” said Sambe.
“It’s not a religion debate, it is cultural,” he continued, adding that in a republic like Senegal, “every citizen has to be identified.”
“In Senegal, the religious rights are not threatened by the government – you can practice Islam, you can practice Christianity, whatever you want, but the government has to right to be preventive and not allow the security of the country to be threatened.”
‘Unnnecesary and irrelevant’
But others described the proposed ban as needless, saying the full-face veil was not common in Senegal and that only a tiny number of women dressed like that.
“It’s a very marginal phenomenon,” professor Abdoulaye Kane, from the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, told Al Jazeera. “I was really surprised that the president came up with this idea. Many Senegalese don’t see it as something that is necessary or relevant.”
Besides security, another reason behind the proposal could be that authorities in Senegal – a former French colony – wanted to “impress” their Western counterparts by following the example of France, which has banned the wearing of full-face veil, Kane said.
“As a Sufi country, Senegal has been trying to position itself as a model country in terms of Islamic practice and the idea of being tolerant and avoiding extreme religious practice,” he said.
“In the political context, I don’t see how the president can gain any points – it’s more for the international [scene], with countries like France looking at Senegal and saying, ‘See even Muslim countries are banning the full veil,'” he added.
Kane also warned that the move could actually backfire and “attract trouble by making these groups like Boko Haram” see Senegal as an enemy.
“We have very porous borders with both Mauritania and Mali, and one of the comments that I’m hearing from the Senegalese is why would you legislate about the full-body veil instead of reinforcing security in the border areas?” he said.
“Even in the actual fight against extremist groups in West Africa people would say you’d better focus on the borders rather than raise issues that might actually attract these groups and make you a legitimate target.”