A few months after I converted to Islam, I went to my local branch of the Motor Vehicle Administration to apply for my learner’s permit. This was my third time going because each of the previous two times I had to return home without the permit because I needed more forms of identification or to have a vision exam completed.
On my third visit, I filled out the application, passed the computerized test, had a note from my eye doctor saying my vision was 20/40 and needed glasses to correct it to 20/20 when driving so they put that restriction on my permit, I paid for the permit, and then I got in line to wait for my photo to be taken.
When my turn came, I sat down quickly and positioned myself to face the camera. The woman working the camera was busy adjusting it and adding my information to the computer. She asked me if I was ready and I said yes. Then she looked at me and said, “Off with the hood”.
I was completely taken aback by her statement. I do not have the words to accurately describe the level of shock I was in. I was not wearing a hood, I was wearing my hijab, and it never occurred to me that I would be asked or rather told to take it off for the picture because my face was fully visible.
I was in shock, there was a long line of unhappy people behind me who had been waiting as long as I had, my mother who had driven me to the MVA was on her phone with her office, and wanted to get back to work as soon as possible, I didn’t know my rights as I had just started wearing hijab a few months earlier, and I didn’t want to argue because I felt that they might deny me the permit and I would have to return for a fourth time.
So I took off my hijab. I felt violated and humiliated. She took the photo and then I put my hijab back on and waited several more minutes for the permit to be made, she called me up, and then handed me hijabless driving permit.
When I got home, I began to research my rights as a woman who wears clothing of a religious nature when having official government issued photos taken. I couldn’t find anything on the MVA’s website so I began googling and found some information on religious accommodations but not much. But since I could see no written policy, I resolved that when I returned for my driving test and license that I would not take off my hijab when it came time to take the photo. And if anyone asked, I would remind them about the First Amendment.
About 6 months later, I was ready to take my driving test which I passed on the second try. When I sat down for my photo, I was very tense but had resolved that if they asked me to take off my hijab I would just say no. But the issue never arose and the guy taking the photo never asked me to remove my hijab. When I show people that license they say I look angry in the picture. And it’s true because I was tense and angry remembering my earlier experience.
Later, that year I had to update my passport, and when I sent the passport photos and application in, I got a letter saying that my pictures were invalid because my hair and ears were covered by my hijab. On the State Department’s passport page, they make clear that they respect the First Amendment protection of freedom of religion and make reasonable accommodations for religious clothing and head-coverings. So I wrote them a one or two sentence letter back saying that I wear hijab for religious reasons. And then they sent me my passport.
I used to work for the federal government and when I had my ID picture taken, I was in hijab and when I showed up at work the first day I was also in hijab. At our first meeting, my manager said, “You have to take off your headgear”. And I said, “This is not headgear, this is hijab, and I do not have to take it off.” She looked a bit shocked but she quickly apologized.
I continued working there with no problems until a high-level manager saw me and she called me into her office. She asked me why I accepted the position if I was going to go against the “no headgear” policy. I said, because I thought the government was going to respect my rights and freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. She didn’t have too much else to say after that.
And one of my supervisors was nice of enough to draft a letter to the agency’s Chief Counsel for me outlining my need for religious accommodation to the clothing policy. I signed it and she sent it in for me. It took several months but a letter came back from the Counsel’s office saying that I could wear hijab but when that same high-level manager that had earlier asked me why I accepted the position called me into her office to inform me of the news she said that I could only wear white hijabs because the black hijabs didn’t “look as friendly”. I could have argued that point but I let it go.
So, you see Jack Straw that even if some of the women who you asked to remove their face veil did so, it does not give any credence to your point. In fact, it makes you look like an indecent coercive manipulator. You are the elected MP for these women and you are not there to further your own ideology and goals but to further theirs. You are supposed to work and serve their interests not your own.
Ostensibly, they came to see you to put forward their ideas, and when you “requested” that they remove their veils I am sure some of them felt as I did at the MVA that I didn’t have a choice, didn’t know my rights, and might have been prevented from achieving the desired goal be it a permit to drive or the ability to speak to their MP and have him listen to their opinions in an unbiased fashion.
Hijab/Niqab does not harm integration as I am as fully American as the next person and your constituents are also British. Our dress is an outward manifestation of our religion but it does prevent us from living our lives in western society. You can communicate with a woman in hijab/niqab by listening to her words. If you close off your ears because you dislike her clothing than something is wrong with you and not with her. Sort out your own insecurities and biases by yourself and leave your constituents alone.
Never again Jack, Never again.