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Without fear of prejudice?

Building-BridgesA minority group in any society, be it a religious, ethnic or other type, can choose to live in the shadows of the majority, to blend in, not become too obvious and not disturb the status quo. The majority in that society can also choose to welcome with open arms the minority, embrace them and have a society that is free for all; or it can choose to close its doors.

Some societies may adopt a middle ground, choosing what it will accept and what it rejects. I believe Barbadians generally over the years have adopted that middle ground.  They have chosen wisely in accepting what is good for the country and rejecting what may be of detriment.

I also believe that minorities here have been mature enough to understand how far they can go in expecting to have their faith, culture and so forth accepted as practices which would not impinge on or change what Barbadians hold dear.

For some in the Rastafarian and Muslim communities in Barbados, 2015 ended and 2016 started with an issue highlighted in the media relating to the denial of rights of women in both these groups to wear their head covering for the purpose of passport photos, driving licence photos, national identification photos and, I am told, also for official identification photos in other Government institutions.

In light of this issue, the important question of how minority groups, their religious beliefs, cultures and so on are treated or should be treated is brought to the front burner.

Two important quotes should help shape this discussion.

No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of minorities.

–– Franklin D. Roosevelt.

We cannot discuss the state of our minorities until we first have some sense of what we are, who we are, what our goals are, and what we take life to be . . . . The question is what we really want out of life, for ourselves, what we think is real.

–– James Baldwin, African-American writer.

At the end of last year, a media institution in Barbados chose, in my opinion, to sensationalize the story of women both of the Muslim and Rastafarian faith not being allowed their right to wear the head covering for official photo purposes. The provocative headlines on two consecutive front pages did evoke several responses, especially via social media.

Many of those responses were disparaging, while a few positive attempted to explain what the matter involved. Nevertheless, it brought to the public attention a matter that has been plaguing Rastafarian and Muslim women in Barbados for over a decade now, and perhaps will serve as a catalyst for the implementation of a policy that allows for what the Constitution Of Barbados guarantees: freedom of expression of religious beliefs.

A few years ago, I came across the term “reasonable accommodation”. Nothing at all to do with affordable housing, as my friend, a noted journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who wrote a paper on it explained, rather it was a term used to describe a commission set up by the Quebec government to look into demands from faith communities for accommodation in the public realm. It is worth reading and has much food for thought.

It examines what the Canadians and Europeans adopted earlier as multiculturalism –– the legal and social accommodation of cultural diversity. Then as a result of ultraconservatives in recent times charging that minorities were exploiting multiculturalism, governments were being told to use “reasonable accommodation” when dealing with religious groups. In their domain it meant imposing a limitation on the engagement of faith in the public realm.

In Barbados we seem to have reached that juncture where some of the religious rights accepted previously are now being denied when it comes to the faith being practised in the public realm. Alicia A. Archer, in her column So, Sue Me! in Barbados TODAY, spells out a case why the religious rights and freedoms enshrined in the Barbados Constitution may be superseded in consideration of the public interest when it comes to the requirements for photos for the National Identification Card.

She asks the question: “Is the prohibition of hats, caps shawls, scarves or “any other form of covering for the head” reasonably required for any of the considerations outlined in Section 19(6) of the Constitution?”

Section 19(6) outlines the proviso to the right of freedom of conscience, namely that no law is a breach of that right where it is reasonable required for “defence, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health . . .”.

Ms Archer answers her question in the affirmative, arguing that the state and every other person in Barbados has a vested interest in knowing what the person looks like and whether such person has any distinguishing marks.

She then introduces into the argument ISIS, Boko Haram and other crazies operating in the world, juxtaposing these terrorist groups into the discussion on whether Muslim and Rastafarian women should be accorded their rights to freedom of religious expression. In making this connection I revisited one of her earlier columns (October 23, 2014) when she wrote on the rights of Muslims to have a development in Clermont and she made the point then: “The only reason for refusal would have been that the proponents were Muslim and it makes others uncomfortable. Unfortunately for some, discomfort is not a constitutionally accepted exception.”

Previously, allowance was given for persons wearing religiously mandated head coverings to keep them on when taking photos. In 2007, regulations were put in place under the representation of the People Act Cap.12, which stated in the second schedule that “an applicant seeking registration under the act shall comply with the following requirement respecting the taking of photographs by an official photographer: an applicant shall not wear (a) a hat, cap, shawl, scarf or any other form of covering for the head; or . . .”.  These are the regulations in place for the National ID Card.

The regulations are not as clear for passports, driving licences and other Government issued documents requiring photos, although ladies wearing headdress are instructed to remove them.

One argument used for not allowing the headdress is compliance with international standards. However, it is interesting to note that several countries, many in the Western Hemisphere do allow for the wearing of the headdress for religious reasons. In fact, a simple search of photo requirements for official documents in different countries reveals that the same regulation as quoted above for Barbados is in place, but with additional wording.

“The photos must show a full head without head covering unless it is worn for religious beliefs or medical reasons.” (British passport)

“Head coverings are not permitted except for religious reasons . . . .” (European visa)   

Canada, the United States, Britain and New Zealand are among countries that permit headdress for religious reasons. If security is an issue, as Ms Archer proposes, then clearly these countries have suffered much more than us in this regard, yet they have not seen it necessary to deny the right to freedom of religious expression.

Headdress worn for religious reasons is a reasonable exception, as persons who adopt a religiously mandated headdress will wear such every day while in public. In fact, the regulations for a visa for the United States include photographs “taken in clothing that you normally wear on a daily basis; uniforms should not be worn in your photo, except religious clothing that is worn daily”. (Emphasis mine.)

As our Barbadian society continues to mature, we will have to face the question of how the minorities among us should operate. Shall they remain closed off from the rest of society in their own “enclaves”, as one writer puts it, or can they feel comfortable enough to come out in the open, practise their faith and seek reasonable accommodation without fear of prejudice or discrimination?

(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, and secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association. 

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