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Gambia's President Orders Female Government Workers to Cover Their Hair

The man who singlehandedly declared his state an Islamic republic and wants to slit the throats of gay men is now making a foray into dictating dress codes for women.

by Kayla Ruble
Jan 5 2016, 6:40pm

Photo by Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

The small West African country of Gambia is now in the business of telling women how to dress. Just weeks after President Yahya Jammeh declared the country an Islamic republic, the government issued an executive decree on Monday ordering female civil servants to cover their hair at work.

In a memo reportedly sent out by Gambia's personnel management office and addressed to the heads of all of the country's departments and agencies, the government announced an executive order banning women employees in public offices from exposing their hair during work hours. Specifically, they are "urged" to "neatly wrap their hair."

"All Heads of Departments and Agencies are urgently advised to implement this directive and bring it to the attention of their female staff within their line departments and agencies," the memo reads. "All are strictly advised to adhere to this new directive."

"Happy New Year," it concludes.

Related: Gambian President Says He Will Slit Gay Men's Throats in Public Speech

In December, Jammeh, who rose to power through a coup in 1994, announced that Gambia would become an Islamic state, while continuing to uphold the rights of the minority Christian population.

"Gambia's destiny is in the hands of the Almighty Allah. As from today, Gambia is an Islamic state. We will be an Islamic state that will respect the rights of the citizens," he said, according to the State House.

Gambians living around the world spoke out against the move, and opposition parties took a hard line against this announcement as well. The United Democratic Party called the move "ill-advised" and said the proclamation was not constitutional. 

"The United Democratic Party will resist the implementation of any proclamation or other directives that are inconsistent with the Constitution," UDP wrote in a statement from Banjul on December 17.  

Gambia is a country of just 1.8 million people — 95 percent of whom are Muslim — and is located along the Atlantic coast of West Africa. Except for its coastline the country is surrounded by Senegal. Thousands of beach-going tourists visit the nation each year. 

While most Gambians are practicing Muslims, according to former information minister turned US-based dissident Amadou Scattred Janneh, in terms of religion the country is quite liberal. Men and women wear both traditional and western clothes, and women often do not cover their hair. Because of this, Janneh said implementing a head scarf policy nationwide would be difficult, and this is likely why Jammeh restricted the order to civil servants.

"That's the norm over there, so to try to change it overnight unilaterally would be very difficult to enforce," he said.  

The head scarf order appears to be the first official decree regarding dress, but this isn't the first time the president has ventured into the business of talking about women's clothing. At the end of last year he questioned whether skinny jeans and underwear were causing infertility. This comment was made during a meeting in which he also criticized the practice of skin bleaching, which has been banned since 1994.

"You don't have to bleach your skin to attract me. I love black beauty," he said.

Jammeh is known for making headlines with his attention-grabbing statements. Last year, in an audio recording obtained by VICE News, the leader said he would slit the throats of gay men living in the country. This is in line with harsh rhetoric and action against homosexuality. In 2014, Gambia made homosexuality punishable by life in prison. The leader, who rules the nation with an iron fist, has also claimed to be able to cure AIDS (but only on Thursdays). Jammeh has also said he will rule Gambia for a billion years — if god allows it.

Related: Two Americans May Have Been Kidnapped by Gambia's Brutal President and His Secret Army

Beyond the bold comments he has become known for in the media, Jammeh has also accumulated a host of human rights abuse accusations against him. In his nearly 22 years in power, the president has almost entirely eliminated the free press, has jailed critics, and has been accused of dozens of disappearances and unlawful detainments. Gambians who have spoken out after being held in the country's notorious Mile 2 prison discuss torture methods such as brutal beatings and electrocutions.

The country has consistently struggled economically, and is now sitting at 165 out of 187 in the UN Development Index rankings. The situation has worsened in recent years following a decision by the United States to remove Gambia from a regional trade benefit program known as AGOA, due to the growing concern over the human rights situation.  In 2014, the European Union also refused to hand over annual funding to the country for similar reasons. Commodity prices have risen, and Gambians living in the diaspora say they have received an increase in requests for money from family members still living in the country, dissident Janneh said.

Moves like declaring Gambia an Islamic state, forcing women to wear head scarves, and anti-LGBT rhetoric are seen by many as a way to gain favor with the Arab world as Western countries continue to back away.

"I think with the withholding of funds by the European Union and other western countries, he's so desperate that he has explored," Janneh said. "Declaring the Gambia an Islamic state is another way to get favor from the Saudis and others."

While this may be part of the plan, Janneh says the president's actions are not working the way he would like. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia denied visas for a group of Gambian pilgrims whom president Jammeh planned to send to Mecca.

Beyond economic concerns, upcoming elections are likely motivating the president's religious rhetoric and policies. Jammeh will seek another term as president during elections this coming December — the country is one of just two nations in West Africa's regional group ECOWAS that does not have term limits. 

"He believes an anti-Western stance would be the best way to get people to behind him, especially if he cloaks himself in Islamic garb," Janneh said.

It is also not unusual for the 49-year-old leader to force civil servants in the Gambia to uphold government policies as a way of demonstrating support, according to Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer at RFK Human Rights.

In the past, public employees have been made to gather in public rallies to show their support to Jammeh. As Smith explained, when we see pictures of solidarity or anti-LGBT marches through the capital city Banjul, which occurred as recently as last year, the participants are typically civil servants, forced to be seen in public supporting Jammeh for fear of losing their job.

"This latest directive should be viewed within that context," he said. "It's another show of strength by Jammeh, related to his declaration of the Gambia as an Islamic Republic, to show that the country somehow supports him and his decisions, regardless of how erratic and bizarre they might seem to be."

Jammeh was praised in recent months by women's rights advocates after he worked with international and local groups to institute a ban on, and criminal punishments for, female genital mutilation (FGM). The procedure has been performed on an estimated 76 percent of the female population, while more than half of girls under the age of 14 have undergone FGM.

Whatever the motivations for the headscarf order and despite the difficulties Jammeh may have enforcing it, there's no question the new executive directive will remain, according to Mama Linguere Sarr, a Gambian human rights activist and journalist based in Sweden. As Sarr pointed out, Jammeh previously used this type of directive to reduce the work week from five days a week to just four days — Monday through Thursday. He also unilaterally withdrew Gambia from the British Commonwealth in 2013 through an executive directive that went unchallenged, despite critics claim that this act was unconstitutional.

"Any directive from Jammeh is automatically law," she explained, adding that public workers may be unhappy about the move, "but in public they will obey the presidential directive because they have seen what happens to people who do not do as Jammeh says."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB