The Head Covering: A Visual Reminder that Religious Diversity Matters

By Kevin Singer

If you’ve spent any time with people who care about religious diversity in higher education, you’ve probably heard them say that compared to other diversity issues, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Eboo Patel, a hero of mine, once wrote that it is “inconsistent to advance a powerful vision when it comes to race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, but to willingly forfeit religious diversity to other forces...religious diversity will require the same sort of investment.”

I recently completed a diversity and equity class for my doctoral program at NC State University. Unsurprisingly, religious diversity was barely a footnote in the course syllabus. We were fortunate, however, that one student was a Turkish Muslim woman who wore the headscarf (Hijab). She was open about her Muslim faith and her experiences as a Muslim woman at two large public universities.

She spoke of one occasion when a student forcibly tried to remove her head covering -- in public.

The classroom went dead silent.

She shared a few more stories about facing harassment because of her choice to publicly display her Muslim faith. We were incredibly fortunate that she had the courage and the generosity to tell us what wearing the hijab meant to her -- and what it has cost her.

In the last few decades, Western nations in North America and Europe have had a mixed relationship with religious head coverings. In 2004, the French government passed a national law prohibiting clothing in public schools that indicated a child's religious affiliation. Though it was written to appear religion-neutral, public consensus was that the law targeted Muslim girls and Sikhs.

It wasn’t until 2016 that the New York Police Department (NYPD) allowed officers to wear turbans. Still, in the last several years, the NYPD has come under fire and has been sued because of policies that require women to remove their head coverings for mugshot photos. In 2017, one officer who wore the Hijab sued the NYPD, citing years of bullying from other officers and supervisors. One sergeant told her not to “detonate on patrol,” while two colleagues once “physically attacked her and attempted to rip her Hijab off of her head,” the court papers read.

Though I do not belong to a religious tradition that encourages head coverings, as someone who cares deeply about religious diversity and interfaith engagement, I have become increasingly grateful for those who do choose to wear head coverings, and who continue to do so despite the clearly documented risks.

First, I appreciate the religious head covering as a beautiful performance of a democratic function as well as a vital contribution to democracy.

Some argue that Islam is a threat to Western democracy. However, I agree with Matthew Kaemingk from Fuller Seminary who argues that “Islam's entrance into the public square represents a critical opportunity for the renewal of Western democracy.

Healthy democracies actually require the public presence and public voice of religion—even religions that challenge their democratic foundations” (emphasis mine).

Secondly, I appreciate the head covering for reminding us that religious diversity matters.

Unless someone tells you their worldview identity, whether it be religious, spiritual, or non-religious, it can be difficult if not impossible to determine. Head coverings are a visual reminder to us that worldview can be core to a student’s identity, just as much if not more than race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender. Furthermore, they remind us that religious diversity is present and active on campus.

If our diversity-speak does not account for these realities, then as Eboo Patel wrote, we “willingly forfeit religious diversity to other forces.” Though we hope that religious and non-religious groups will capitalize on their commonalities and appreciate their differences, this isn’t always the case. I recently visited a campus where almost a decade ago, a student group drew chalk drawings of Muhammad across campus in an effort to demonstrate that religion does not deserve special protection from criticism. Even now, people on campus and in the community still vividly remember the outrage, division, and violence that occurred as a result.

What we need to do is tell a new story on our campuses (as I am doing here) about the beauty of religious expression and the benefits of religious diversity. There are numerous opportunities to do this, and carving out space at orientation is a good start.

When you see students wearing religious head coverings on your campus, remember that these opportunities are there for the taking. These students deserve to feel safe and supported on campus too, and we can do our part to make sure that their courage is celebrated.

Originally published in Inside Higher Ed: University of Venus on May 13, 2019.

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