I was repeatedly asked to remove my niqab while on holiday in Zanzibar

Niqab. Editorial credit: Robin Batista

Mahrukh Ahmed recounts her harrowing experience of being discriminated against by officials in Zanzibar where she was repeatedly asked to remove her niqab.

For our holidays we were hoping to go to a Muslim-majority country so that we would be able to enjoy ourselves without having to worry about people giving us trouble due to our religion.

Therefore, my husband tried to find places which would allow for niqab as I wear one. Amongst his choices was Zanzibar, an African island where many locals wear the niqab.

After researching about it, we decided Zanzibar would be a nice holiday destination. But what we experienced there was far from what he had anticipated. Sadly, we were subjected to humiliation due to the fact that I cover my face with a face veil and the perpetrators of this were none but our own Muslim brethren.

Religious discrimination 

As we arrived in Zanzibar, we were met warmly at the airport. I lifted my veil for security purposes when the official asked to verify my identity, and then we carried on.

On the first day, we visited The Slave Market in Stone Town, the capital. But as we were walking in, security stopped us and told me to remove my niqab “due to security reasons.” We tried to explain that if it were due to security I would be happy to show my face once but then I would cover it again. But they rejected this completely so we decided to leave.

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The second place was Prison Island, where we proceeded to a tortoise sanctuary. After entering an official approached me in front of all the tourists and told me that I was not allowed to be there whilst my face was covered. So I left the sanctuary, refusing to remove my veil.

What hurt most was that this was discrimination coming from Muslims. One official even mentioned that “the other tourists get scared.” My husband then asked to speak to the manager. He explained the situation and the manager allowed us to proceed.

Then at a certain bank the security guard approached us regarding the niqab. I asked him if it was okay for me to at least sit outside if I was not allowed to enter. He replied in the negative and gestured with his hand for me to move off the premises, the way people shoo away vermin.

Lastly, the airport. After having to go through two instances of being told to remove my niqab but explaining and being allowed to keep it on, as soon we went to the security checks (before proceeding to the gates), I was told it was prohibited to wear the niqab and I would have to remove it.

Stone Town, Zanzibar

We told them that I had showed my face for security reasons twice already and were allowed to proceed, but to no avail. We were humiliated by airport officials in front of the other travellers, all of whom were wearing face masks and not being asked to remove them.

We asked why they didn’t have to remove masks but I had to remove my niqab? The officials didn’t know; all they knew was that it was prohibited to wear the niqab, specifically.

Had the rule been for security reasons, surely the face mask would have to be removed also? They told us to stand to aside whilst they called others to help. We recorded the whole ordeal but they also made us delete our evidence.

We told them it was disgraceful, and it was religious discrimination. They told us we had to respect the country’s rules, yet couldn’t provide us with evidence of this being a governmental rule.

Even if it is, it makes no sense. Whenever my face needs to be checked for security reasons I always lift my niqab with no questions asked because it makes sense to confirm identity. To ask me to have it removed at all times is not security; that’s an infringement of my basic human right to religious freedom.

But we didn’t go down without a fight. Finally, I went to a corner, removed my niqab and replaced it with a mask. I’m not sure what difference it made to them because my face was still covered. But I felt broken. Having worn niqab out of my own choice for many years in a non-Muslim country, I had never faced such hatred towards this simple yet powerful piece of cloth as I had felt in this Muslim-majority island.

I had a break-down, not only over the removal of my niqab, but the state of the Muslim Ummah.

Disappointed in Muslims 

In conclusion, in Zanzibar we are faced with a major issue. Many local Muslim women wear the niqab and undoubtedly are forced to remove it in certain places, despite being in a majority-Muslim country. This is religious discrimination.

In a country where wearing immodest clothing is discouraged by signs on the streets (due to Islam), tourists wear whatever they want. Nobody bats an eyelid at the bare legs displayed on the streets and see-through clothing.

But when a woman wants to wear niqab, they force her to remove it, all the while being incapable of giving even one valid reason as to why.

Not in a million years would we have anticipated that we would receive such treatment from our own Muslim brothers and sisters. May Allah guide us all.

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