Religious freedom questions veiled by photo fight

St. Petersburg Times, via, July 5, 2003
By Susan Taylor Martin, St. Petersburg Times

Though inspired by an extreme form of Islam that Western culture considers repressive, Sultaana Freeman’s battle to be veiled in her Florida driver’s license photo is seen by some as an important test of freedom — religious freedom.

Freeman, formerly Sandra Kellar, became a Muslim in 1997. She shrouded herself in black — scarf, veil and robe — and was photographed for her driver’s license with only her eyes visible.

But in early 2002, at a time of heightened security concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks, the state revoked Freeman’s license when she refused to have the photo retaken on the grounds that it would violate her religious beliefs. Freeman sued the state.

On June 5, a judge in Orlando ruled against Freeman, agreeing with the state’s claim that allowing motorists to show only their eyes would undermine efforts to stop terrorists and other criminals. Freeman’s husband said they will continue to fight the photo policy.

Freeman, 35, acknowledged that she had been photographed without her veil since converting to Islam: in a 1998 booking photo after her arrest in Illinois. She was convicted of aggravated battery on a child in her foster care and sentenced to 18 months probation.

Freeman has declined to talk to reporters, but her manner of dress suggests she follows Wahhabism, a rigid, puritanical form of Islam that requires women to cover themselves from head to toe.

Of the more than 50 countries with predominantly Muslim populations, only two in recent times have forced women to dress so austerely — Afghanistan while it was under Taliban rule, and Saudi Arabia, which prohibits women from driving and generally treats them like second-class citizens.

What Freeman seems to have converted to “is a particular kind of Islam that is very much in the minority,” says Tamara Sonn, a professor of religion at Virginia’s College of William and Mary. “It’s only that strict Wahhabi interpretation that requires full coverage.”

Islam itself imposes no such requirement. The Koran, the Muslim holy book, says only that women and men should dress modestly. Even women in conservative cultures have usually interpreted that to mean they can leave their faces uncovered.

Among the millions of other Muslim women, modes of dress vary widely, as Geraldine Brooks notes in “Nine Parts of Desire“.

But the American Civil Liberties Union, which has supported Freeman, argues that the judge’s ruling reflects a post-Sept. 11 erosion of rights that does little to enhance public safety. A photo itself is no guarantee that someone is law-abiding, the ACLU says — several of the hijackers had licenses with their pictures on them.

The ACLU also notes that California and 13 other states allow exemptions to the photo requirement, often for Christian sects that consider photographs a violation of the second commandment’s ban on “graven images.”

And Florida has issued more than 4,000 driver’s licenses without photos to overseas military personnel and others absent from the state.

Even if Freeman has embraced a form of Islam that most people find extreme, the state should allow her to practice it without discriminatory restrictions, says Howard Simon, ACLU of Florida’s executive director.

“When did the test of whether someone has the right to exercise religious freedom in this country come to be whether or not they are practicing some mainstream or orthodox religion?” he asks. “The test is whether somebody wants to live by sincerely held religious beliefs.

“She sincerely wants to live in a modest way, in a way that her face is not shown to any male but her husband. … If those are her sincerely held religious views, the Constitution has to protect those views.”

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This post was last updated: Thursday, November 21, 2013 at 8:52 PM, Central European Time (CET)