10 July, 2007


20 year-old Aniisa Karim, a Muslim woman, was denied entry into a municipal courtroom in Valdosta, Georgia earlier this month because she was wearing a headscarf.

According to the the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), contacted by Karim following the incident, "The lifelong Muslim is African-American, born and raised in Baltimore. A disc jockey for WAAC-FM Country Music Radio in Valdosta, Karim is about as apple-pie American as it gets."

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also released a statement criticizing Valdosta court officials regarding the matter. The ADL statement reminded readers that such cases are not Muslim-specific, but rather a matter that relates to several faiths.

For those of you dealing in stereotypes: Ms. Karim is NOT Arab (85% of Muslims are NOT Arab (ADC) and not all Arabs are Muslim), she IS American (none of this 'go back to your own country' garbage), she's works (gasp!) in the music business (not everybody thinks music is evil) at a Valdosta Hip-Hop radio station.

Then there's the issue of why she was denied entry. According to the Valdosta Daily Times "Karim said one of the officers told her that the denial of entry to the courtroom was due to “homeland security reasons” and that allowing her to enter would show “disrespect” to the judge..."

Let's deal with the "security" issue first. While there are several different styles of hijab, it's not really an easy place to conceal a dangerous weapon. I actually had a farcical discussion about this with a friend who does wear hijab once. She joked that the only thing dangerous that would fit in her headscarf was her "devastatingly beautiful hair", said while miming a Pantene shake-out of her hair. While I suppose anything is possible, Ms. Karim did offer to subject her head and the rest of herself to additional security screening short of removing her head scarf and otherwise proved no threat to court officers. Was she acting inappropriately, erratically, suspiciously? No, she simply wore her hijab, which unfortunately is equated by many with the previously mentioned behaviors. She even asked court officers and a court clerk if she had any options available to her that would allow her to retain her headscarf while attending to her legal matter at the court.

As for her headscarf "disrespecting" the presiding judge, I cannot figure out how a piece of fabric worn on the head is capable of disrespecting a person. That's impressive for a piece of cloth. Would the judge be similarly disrespected by non-Muslim head wraps? A bandanna?

The Valdosta Daily Times nailed the issue in one line of a recent editorial on the issues of freedom: "Too often, these days, we are willing to trade a great deal of freedom for an uncertain level of security.Disrespect is a key word here. Barring the Muslim woman’s admittance to court because of a tenet of her religion disrespects her as an individual and her faith. It disrespects the courage of the Founding Fathers. It disrespects the sacrifices of generations of Americans both in the United States and across the world."

Indeed disrespect if the key word here. Hijab is not one of the five pillars of Islam and is, in fact, a subject of dispute with some Muslims as to whether it is required and how it should be interpreted. Not all Muslim women wear hijab. Nor are those who do meek victims. Some, admittedly not all, make the choice to wear hijab on their very own. I know professors, poets, lawyers, journalists, police officers, athletes, etc. who lead full lives with covered heads. The Founding Fathers of this nation understood the need to protect religious freedoms for all faiths, descended as they were from the bloody religious conflicts of Europe. Thanks to U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, we know Thomas Jefferson owned and read a copy of the Quran. That the image and understanding of these broadminded, yet often contradictory, men have been warped into that of narrow-minded, Christian-only zealots bent on shoring up divisive agendas disrespects them and what they believed in and fought for. As for the generations of Americans who fought wars to protect the rights and freedoms this country was founded on, any infringement of those rights and freedoms disrespects them and their sacrifices.

As of July 7 neither city officials nor the nearly "disrespected" judge are talking. A Laurens County, Georgia judge issued a formal apology and amended their policy last year after a Sikh was denied entry into the courthouse due to a "no hats" policy. In the press release detailing the resolution of that case, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund President Mirin Kaur noted the importance of challenging such incidents, “The changing of the court policy will not only affect Sikh Americans but also Muslim men with skullcaps, Muslim women wearing hijab, Jewish men with yarmulkes, Christian women with religious head coverings, and all other people who wear mandatory religious attire.

It is a remarkable privilege that we are permitted to practice or not practice a faith in this country and that this freedom is protected in our Constitution. We need to remember that all faiths are protected in this country, whether you believe in them, agree with them, or not, and that those who practice those faiths have certain forms of expression guaranteed them by law and accepted understanding of basic human rights.

People, Muslim and Non-Muslim alike, need to understand once and for all that Muslim women are far more than what they do or do not wear on their heads. For that matter, so too are Sikh men, Jewish and Christian women who cover, Jewish men wearing the yamulke, or anyone whose religious beliefs include similar outward expressions, more than what they wear. Take people for who they are, not what they wear.


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