Judge: Face key in deciding truth
Ginnnah Muhammad of Detroit was looking for her day in court.
Instead, she said she felt as if a judge forced her to choose between her case and her religion in a small-claims dispute in Hamtramck District Court.
A devout Muslim, she wore a niqab — a scarf and veil to cover her face and head except for her eyes — Oct. 11 as she contested a rental car company’s charging her $2,750 to repair a vehicle after thieves broke into it.
Judge Paul Paruk said he needed to see her face to judge her truthfulness and gave Muhammad, 42, a choice: take off the veil when testifying or the case would be dismissed. She kept the veil on.
“I just feel so sad,” Muhammad said last week. “I feel that the court is there for justice for us. I didn’t feel like the court recognized me as a person that needed justice. I just feel I can’t trust the court.”
This month, former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, still a member of parliament, ignited a fierce debate over the niqab by suggesting that Muslim women in his district remove their veils when they visit his office. He said it would improve communication, calling the veil “a visible statement of separation and of difference.”
It has sparked controversy in the United States as well. A Muslim woman from Florida unsuccessfully went to court in an effort to overturn the state’s order in 2001 that she reveal her face for her driver’s license photo.
In metro Detroit, which has one of the country’s largest Muslim populations, a small minority of Muslim women — primarily those of Yemeni descent — wear the niqab, said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Paruk said that as a fact finder, he needs to see the face of a person testifying. Michigan has no rules governing what judges can do regarding religious attire of people in court, so the judges have leeway on how to run their courtrooms.
“My job in the courtroom is to make a determination as to the veracity of somebody’s claim,” he said. “Part of that, you need to identify the witness and you need to look at the witness and watch how they testify.”
Paruk said he offered to let Muhammad, who was born in the United States and converted to Islam at the age of 10, wear the veil during the proceedings except when she testified. He said this was the first time someone had come before his court wearing a niqab, and he noted that many Muslims do not consider it a religious symbol.
“I felt I was trying to accommodate her as best I could,” he said.
Walid said Paruk still violated Muhammad’s civil rights.
“Although a niqab is donned by a minority of Muslim females, it is still a bona fide religious practice,” he said.
Hamtramck, once almost entirely populated by residents of eastern European descent, now has a large and growing population of Muslims.
“There definitely needs to be greater sensitivity toward the growing populace in that municipality,” Walid said.
Judges should seek to strike a balance between running their courtrooms and respecting the religious views of those appearing before them, said Steve Leben, a Kansas trial court judge who is president of the American Judges Association.
“I’m not trying to be critical of the judge because it is difficult to make decisions on the fly,” Leben said. “But if it’s a person’s legitimate religious belief, we have a duty to try to reconcile these competing interests.”
Mark Somers, chief judge of the Dearborn District Court, which covers the bulk of the Detroit area’s Muslim population, said he could not recall an instance when a woman who wore a niqab came before his court to testify.
But he said he would not require a woman to remove her veil during a civil case.
“To me, it would not be an issue,” he said. “I simply as a matter of personal policy would never ask someone to do that.”