Photograph — Rachael Herman

21 years after seizing power in Gambia as a 29-year old Lieutenant in 1994, Yahya Jammeh has become known in human rights circles as a dictator who is dismissive of human rights and takes decisions without considering their likely effect on the country. According to the BBC, a document was leaked to the media which states that an “executive directive has been issued mentioning that all female staff within the government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are no longer allowed to expose their hair during official working hours.”

leaked-memo

In some other Islamic societies within Africa such as Libya, women predominantly cover their hair in public, as do women in Mali. However, in this particular case, are the headscarves a cultural necessity or a proponent of Islamic values? Although the presidency has not confirmed details of the leaked memo, it appears the executive order is in sync with the earlier declaration of Gambia as an Islamic Republic.

In 2014, Pew Research Center published a study on how people prefer Muslim women to appear in public, citing the fact that in Islam, the appearance of women in public seems to be a very important issue. The results prove that there are varying opinions in certain Islamic societies.

Pew Research Center
Pew Research Center

However, in those same selected countries, there appears to be a trend of freedom in terms of Muslim women’s dress code.

Pew Research Center
Pew Research Center

Jammeh has, in the recent past, banned Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the country, which is a great achievement for the country given the fact that FGM is a major limitation on women’s rights in Africa. The Human Rights Watch, based in New York, has repeatedly called Jammeh out as a repressive leader, in September 2015, HRW published an article on a defector from the National Intelligence Agent in Gambia who suggested that Gambians were living in fear. “People are picked up one day and never seen again, living in Gambia is like a constant trauma”, he said.

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