Muslim head scarf controversy: When does curiosity become discrimination?

A Hampton University student claims school staff told her she would need 'proof' of her religion to wear her traditional head scarf in her ID photo. Why, in a nation founded on religious freedom, are Muslim women being asked to provide documentation to practice their faith?

Richard Drew/AP
Three Muslim women get together on a plaza at a gathering in front of New York City Police Department headquarters, June 18. While headscarves are common throughout the Arab world, women wearing the traditional hijab experience frequent scrutiny in the United States.

Often I am stopped in the street by random people who usually point to my hijab and ask in a loud, slow voice, “Where are you from?”

When I reply with a straight face, “I am from here, where are you from?”, they are usually taken aback and continue to make more loaded and ignorant comments like “Oh, that’s why your English is so good!”

I understand that some people may be curious as to why I cover my hair, but there are limits to when such questions can be asked. Having friendly conversations with co-workers, classmates, and neighbors about hijab while getting to know one another is absolutely fine. In the freedom of America, this shouldn’t become an interrogation of my Muslim beliefs in the supermarket checkout or on the treadmill at the gym.

But that’s what it sometimes becomes as in the case of a Muslim student at Hampton University, in Hampton, Va., who was recently asked to provide documentation of her Muslim faith in order to be photographed in hijab for her school ID. Otherwise she would have to remove it.

Melonna Clarke brought back a written note from her local mosque stating that she is indeed a Muslim and that the hijab she dons is part of her religious identity.

This comes just a couple of weeks after retailer Abercrombie & Fitch settled a lawsuit filed by a Muslim woman for refusing to hire her because of her head scarf. 

And a couple of months ago, a law student was asked to remove her hijab while taking her Massachusetts bar exam.

Why is a piece of cloth that Muslim women choose to wear over their head such a big deal? Why is it used to encroach on and inhibit their educational and career-related endeavors? We hear of a countless stories of Muslim women being singled out and harassed simply because of one way they choose to observe their faith.

American-Muslim women come from diverse racial, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds – some choose to wear the hijab and others don’t, but either way, this factor should not be considered the sole or most significant marker of their personhood and individual identities.

When I first moved to South Carolina from Ohio a couple of years ago, I worked at an office at the school where I was studying for a Master’s degree. A couple of weeks later, a colleague told me how another co-worker was surprised I was hired because I was wearing “that thing” on my head.

Americans should feel comfortable practicing any religion the way they please and not feel threatened or burdened by what they do or do not wear.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Aya Khalil can be contacted at

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