Columns Opinion Simran Jeet Singh: Articles of Faith

Welcome Muslim congresswomen by dropping ban on headwear

Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., right, heads to a Democratic Caucus meeting Nov. 15, 2018, in the basement of the Capitol in Washington as new members of the House and veteran representatives met to discuss their agenda when they become the majority in the 116th Congress. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — This month, for the first time in history, Americans elected two Muslim women to the U.S. Congress.

Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat who will represent Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, is the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress. Ilhan Omar, elected to represent Minnesota’s 5th District, is the first Somali-American woman, the first Minnesotan of color and the first refugee elected to Congress.

Given that Muslim women have been in the United States since before the nation’s founding, we can cheer the progress represented by the breaking of these glass ceilings, even if it’s upsetting that it has taken this long.

One way to celebrate is to change rules and customs that implicitly marginalize or exclude those who represent us. Omar is not even in office yet, but she is already making this a priority. Omar, who wears hijab, is pushing to allow religious headwear, such as Muslim hijabs, Jewish kippas and Sikh turbans.

Headwear of any kind has been banned from the House chamber since 1837. The rule, designed to outlaw the wearing of hats, was written at a time and by people who likely never imagined religious minorities rising up to help lead this nation. At Omar’s urging, Democratic leaders have proposed in their draft rules for the incoming Congress that religious headwear be permitted on the House floor.

To many Americans, it will seem like a no-brainer to update the headwear policy held by Congress and to uphold Omar’s constitutional right to practice her sincerely held religious beliefs. Rules like this were not likely intended to be malicious or exclusionary; it seems more likely that they were simply written without certain people in mind.

At the same time, policies like this — what we often refer to as structural discrimination – are pervasive in this country. I know because I’ve personally encountered them. Growing up in Texas, for instance, my brothers and I encountered many situations where basketball referees and coaches told us we couldn’t play with our turbans.

It was only last year that the international governing body for basketball – FIBA – updated its rules to allow players, who had been forced to choose between their love for sport and faith, to hit the court with their heads covered. The rule, the authorities had explained, was in place to ensure the safety of all competitors.

As someone who has grown up playing basketball all his life, I promise you that the cloth on my head poses no more of a threat than any other article of clothing on my body.

Minnesota state Rep. Ilhan Omar, center, celebrates after her congressional 5th District primary victory on Aug. 14, 2018, in Minneapolis. (Mark Vancleave/Star Tribune via AP)

If Congress is guilty of maintaining outdated policies that infringe on religious freedoms, how can Americans expect to change these discriminatory policies in everyday life?

When the House of Representatives, our most democratic institution, has rules in place that discriminate against religious minorities, it sends the message that it’s OK to discriminate everywhere against people based on how they look or what they believe.

It’s particularly ironic that a rule bars religious freedom in the halls of Congress given that the First Amendment specifically states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … ”

On the other hand, Congress could send the opposite message by updating its policies and showing that it will not tolerate wrongful discrimination anywhere on the basis of religious identity.

By adjusting a rule that never intended to discriminate, Congress could teach a crucial less about discrimination: that intention is not the measure of justice. Justice must also account for how our customs and routines affect everyone. As we rid ourselves of rules that represent our blind mistreatment and oppression of entire communities, we all become better citizens.

The ascendance of leaders like Omar from historically marginalized communities offers us a tremendous opportunity to learn, reflect, grow and do better. Let’s make sure that we recognize this blessing and make the most of these opportunities.

About the author

Simran Jeet Singh

Simran Jeet Singh is a scholar of religion currently based at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. He is also senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition.

97 Comments

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  • What is it about other people’s headwear that gets so many people up in arms? For instance, I have never understood why it is considered proper form for women to wear a veil or other form of head covering in church while it it considered bad form for men to continue wearing their hats once they enter a church. Since it’s mostly arch-conservative Catholic women who continue to maintain this curious custom, perhaps the resident conservative Catholic authorities can enlighten me as to the rationale behind this disparity. Presumably sexual organs are involved. I mean, what else could it possibly be?

  • Women are required to wear head covering because their ancestor, Eve, got fooled by a talking snake. Also, a woman’s seductive hairdo can be very distracting to the men among the worshipers, in addition to the occasional envious woman, and to the priest. This is all spelled out right there in Natural Law and Canon Law.

  • How about she is welcomed just like the other members of Congress? With a swearing in ceremony with her family followed by lunch?

    Always interesting how some people just can’t follow the rules like everyone else has since the 1800’s.

    I guess she truly is more special then the rest of us. Maybe it’s all about her and her religious beliefs than America.

  • There has not been a single Orthodox Jew seated as a representative in the House of Representatives since 1837.

  • It’s in the Bible, I Corinthians 11:1-16.

    Also common among Orthodox Christian women in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere, as well as with some conservative Protestant groups.

    Oh, and no sexual organs are involved. Sorry.

  • “some people just can’t follow the rules like everyone else has since the 1800’s.

    1837 to be precise. Back when the rules permitted white people to own black people. Don’t you worry. President Trump is going to Make America White Again. He promised.

  • People as recently as 2018 respected the rules – no? Why can’t she respect the traditions of the House?

    Speaking of white, the great Democratic Party statesman and grand wizard of the KKK; Robert Byrd shudda asked for a rule change and wore his hood.

    You would be all for that – right?!

  • It’s just not right that Those People should be coming and messing up your sandbox. Don’t you worry. President Trump is going to Make Your Sandbox White Again. He promised.

  • It is as Jesus said, “Blessed are those who can dish it and take it, for they will dish and take in heaven.” Jesus no doubt is very proud of your dishing and taking. Maybe someday after you have gone to your heavenly reward you will become the Patron Saint of Dishing and Taking.

  • “How about she is welcomed just like the other members of Congress? With a swearing in ceremony with her family followed by lunch?”

    I had to re-read the article because you comment made me think I missed something. But I didn’t. Please let us know what secret information you have about how she wants to be welcomed in the Congress any differently? I did not see where she didn’t want the swearing-in ceremony or a lunch…

  • Why? They didn’t change it for anyone else in 150 years. Why should it be changed for her?
    Why can’t she respect those that served before her?

  • Rules change when they need to. If they didn’t, we’d still have restricted country clubs across the land and separate drinking fountains based on skin pigmentation.

    “It’s always been this way” is a feeble reason to maintain a rule.

  • Respecting tradition is what she i doing, her tradition & religion. Does her wearing her hijab interfere with anyone’s business? Does it so offend anyone for a real reason or are those so offended just offended that a Muslim woman has dared to be elected & sit in chambers?
    If it’s the last part, that person needs to check their biases & the Constitution.

  • Because it affects you not. Just like LGBTQ getting married. Neither affects you personally. If you’re so offended, you are a bigot. Don’t like being called a bigot? Mind your own business for what affects you.

  • Schools weren’t desegregated just for Linda Brown. Women didn’t get the vote just for Susan B. Anthony. The police don’t read suspects their rights just for the sake of Ernesto Miranda.

    And this rule shouldn’t change just for Rashida Tlaib. It should change because it’s the right thing to do.

  • Belonging to a club or social group (if you want to call the KKK that) is not the same as belonging to a long-established religious tradition with particular clothing requirements. I suspect you understand that.

  • Why? How does it harm anyone?

    When rules no longer make sense, they should be done away with. This rule no longer makes sense.

  • If your job required you to do something contrary to your religious beliefs, wouldn’t you feel harmed? This nation respects the right of the individual to freely practice their religion, which for Muslim women means wearing a hijab. Members of Congress do not surrender their constitutional rights.

    The rule prohibiting headgear is archaic and arbitrary and there is not sufficient reason to maintain it. That’s the long and the short of it.

  • Maybe she shouldn’t take a job that is contrary to her religious beliefs?
    Also, what about the others that had to forgo their right to wear a hat in order to follow the rules of the house? Why was it not changed for them?

  • The job isn’t contrary to her religious beliefs. The rule is. The rule is not the job. Get the difference?

    This isn’t just about wanting to wear a hat indoors. It’s about religious freedom. Who else has had to forego their religious rights in order to serve in the House? Name someone specific.

  • The job thing was your statement not mine.
    Why should her religious preference be favored over everyone else?

  • Obviously, because nobody’s rights are being denied by her religious preference. Others might be offended by it, but that’s not the same thing. Unless they can prove somehow that her wearing a hajib causes them harm, there is no legitimate reason to require her to violate her religious beliefs.

    I’m moving on. Happy Thanksgiving.

  • Wow. It could be interesting to see Congress apply religious freedom ideals to their own operations. How far does custom, religion, and personal style go? Or, maybe better to think about, what is just “religious freedom” and is not just custom of a particular group or is not just personal style? I get it about hijabs, kippahs, and turbans. But, there is also a segment of our population who love cowboy hats, even sequined cowboy hats. Will religious freedom apply to cowboy hats if someone claims such as a religious expression?

    We live in interesting times.

  • It has never come up as an issue. New set of circumstances now and congress can adjust. I know, you conservatives are never good with change

  • It is considered bad manners for a man to wear a hat indoors. It’s a pretty pervasive rule of etiquette and in some places, such as the military, its been codified into the rules for whatever reason.

    Etiquette rules like that abound. The House has other rules, for instance women must have sleeves and close-toed shoes, and men must have a jacket and tie.

    Women were often exempted from the hat rule because in Victorian England, where most of these rules started, hats were considered to be a part of their outfit, and also were even sometimes weaved into their hair so they stayed on (think about the weird hats you see at the royal wedding). So as a result, women were not required to take their hats off.

    @Alwayspuzzled IS correct that many christian religions prescribe head coverings for women (and some for men too), but that isn’t actually related to this particular style/etiquette rule.

  • How? Does her hijab interfere with your line of sight? That was the original reason for stopping men wearing stove pipe hats.
    Does the color of her hijab clash with your suit?
    Does she wear reflective tape on it that blinds you in Congress?
    Don’t be a d*ck.

  • Who didn’t assimilate? She was duly elected to an office she ran for.
    As an aside, why hasn’t 45 assimilated to a decent human being?

  • “Can she do that?”

    Yes.

    MAY she do that?

    No. Not wearing her headgear is contrary to her religious belief.

  • If the House is smart, it will either:

    a. Ignore its rule with respect to religious application, or

    b. Change its rule to accommodate religious application.

    No need to “make a mountain out of a mole hill”.

  • I’m confident that law was never applied to Jews wearing kippas and would likewise not be applied to Muslim headcovers. The rule can and will be easily changed. No need to make an issue of it when there isnt one.

  • Overrated and fictional.

    What nativist bigots claimed was a requirement for all non white, non Protestant cultures. But not worth taking seriously.

    Integration is the real goal. Living peaceably with everyone. Bringing the best of the world or to our doorstep.

    Your arguments here are too obviously trolling to believe these are genuine positions here. You just wanted to be a d1ck for its own sake.

  • Stupid comment by a stupid person.
    Tell that to the parent/spouse/child of the person that was killed by an OWI driver last night.

  • Nope. Assimilation is what binds a nation together – language, custom, laws and tradition; each party sharing with the other.
    Otherwise, you have different camps with no reason to get along.
    If they do not intend to assimilate because they want to keep true to their native land; then better for them to stay there.
    A good quote for you to share with your friends:
    “No man is wanted that doesn’t come to the flag of his country”

  • Assimilation is only if you are a fascist who hates a free society, religious freedom and individual liberty. Assimilation is not sharing it’s demanding.

    You are not talking about sharing. I am. You are requiring conformity to specific religious and cultural mores and that people abandon their own. That is assimilation.

    Integration is sharing and respect for cultures and religions. Working with each other for common community goals. Not forcing them to do as you demand for arbitrary reasons. We are a nation of differences. Taking the best of what the world refuses.

    Funny thing is how the same bull crap argument has been used for years ageinst American Catholics and Jews for decades. “If they don’t intend to act like proper Protestants, they are not really American.

    There always was a little neo Nazi in you.

    Btw you are still trolling here. I don’t believe for a minute this is a genuine position on your part. You are just stirring crap up.

  • Ironically removing the ban for religious reasons is in support of the First Ammendment guaranteeing religious freedom. Don’t you support it even if the benefits flow to another religion?

  • So I don’t get it.
    A guy is nominated to the Supreme Court; who happens to be Catholic is grilled about using his faith to make decisions – that is considered bad.
    But, wearing a headdress; an outward sign of ones faith is good.
    I thought we want America to be secular?
    But, for a female Muslim we change secular rules….

  • They’re impressive. Almost as impressive as the Chiefs. We’re having fun in Kansas City this year.

  • It’s really kind of stunning that you don’t see the difference between somebody allowing their religion to influence legal judgment and somebody wearing an item of clothing that harms no one. For the record, I think the concerns about Catholic judges are misplaced, but I certainly get the difference between that concern and the flap over Muslim headwear.

  • Wut? You don’t want religion do you? All that sin stuff to wire about.
    You want a secular America- so no religion allowed; female Muslims included.

  • I like how you are willing to accommodate. How about accommodating the Ten Commandments in the Capitol rotunda? Menorah inside the Supreme court?
    You seem to be willing to accommodate some over others.

  • That you don’t see the difference between an elected woman wearing her hijab that affects no one and having christian monuments in open, public spaces is not only disturbing & disappointing, but it speaks to the low level of your critical thinking skills.
    You are now on mute. I don’t have time to read your comments.

  • Honest? you have to be able to communicate before that happens. Your being pissy came through loud and clear and little else.

  • Oh no! Did I hurt your fee-fee’s by asking you a direct question about your insinuation?
    It must be so difficult for you to explain your original claim.
    I am SO sorry that I challenged your “iron “manhood.”

  • You might want to rethink your original comment & subsequent ones before publicly posting again.
    I have other things to do instead of reading & responding to your inanity.

  • Yeah you know it wasn’t badly written but don’t have the guts to admit I’m right.

    Your cowardice is an embarrassment to women.

  • So far you’ve made an unintelligible post and one with an obvious spelling error but go ahead keep projecting just like Trump.

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