Atlantic Highlands, N.J. — Growing up on the shores of Sandy Hook Bay, Mona Elgohail always loved the sea and was delighted to win a slot at a special high school for the study of marine sciences.
But the 14-year-old eventually dropped out of the Marine Academy of Science and Technology because of a conflict between her Islamic faith and the school’s requirement that all students take part in Naval Junior ROTC training.
As a devout Muslim who will observe Ramadan this weekend, Elgohail insisted on wearing her hijab, the head scarf encouraged by the Quran but prohibited by the Navy. The school tried to work with her on several alternatives — and officials even exempted Elgohail from the ROTC requirement in the end — but she dropped out of the school as a matter of principle.
”They looked at it like it was a hat problem, like it was no big deal. But it was,” she said. ”It’s part of my religion. It was my choice to wear it. When I make a decision, I stick to it.”
Her experience is one of many playing out across the country in which authorities have questioned those wearing the hijab. From schools to police departments to airlines to motor vehicle agencies, the scarf is welcomed in some places, tolerated in others and banned in still others.
”A lot of it is probably just due to a lack of education about Islam,” said Faiza Ali, director of the New Jersey office of the Council on American Islamic Relations. ”Hijab is a very visible symbol that one is a Muslim. Unfortunately, they see that and they jump to the next conclusion: ‘Muslim terrorist’ or ‘Muslim fanatic,’ and it scares them.”
Many authorities cite safety in prohibiting the scarves, arguing that they can be used to conceal identity or hide weapons.
Indiana University recently dropped a ban on women wearing head scarves for student ID photos after four Muslim women complained. In Daytona Beach, Fla., a Muslim woman who initially was denied a state ID card when she refused to remove her hijab eventually got one when she agreed to adjust the covering to permit her full face to be seen in the photo.
In Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Jail agreed last year to let Muslim women wear head scarves in the jail and when they appeared in court.
American Airlines reached an out-of-court settlement last year with a woman who said she was turned down for a customer service job when she insisted on wearing the hijab. The airline, which said it offered her a different job, changed its policy in 1999 to permit the wearing of hijabs, crucifixes, yarmulkes and other religious attire by uniformed employees who deal with customers.
But rulings in other parts of the country have gone against the hijab. Philadelphia police officials told a Muslim officer in August that she would be fired if she wore her hijab to work again. The department contends the garment is dangerous because a suspect could grab it and injure the officer.
And an Oklahoma school district is in a dispute with an 11-year-old girl who was suspended for refusing to take off her hijab at school. Nashala Hearn will be allowed to wear the scarf while a school attorney reviews the Muskogee district’s policies.
In Elgohail’s case, leaving the Marine Academy was her decision. She tried covering her hair with a hat and a bandanna, but that didn’t work. The principal, Paul Christopher, eventually agreed to exempt her from the ROTC requirement, but she didn’t want to be the only student in the school who was left out of it, and later enrolled in a different high school.
The academy, part of the Monmouth County Vocational School District, is extremely competitive, accepting only students with the highest grades.
”I tried so hard to get into that school,” she said. ”Making it in is a big deal, and I didn’t want to leave. It’s the best place to study marine science. I still want to go back, but only if I could wear the scarf with the uniform. I really like that school.”
Christopher said the Navy issues uniform regulations, which his school is powerless to change. In a prepared statement, the Navy said a black or ”hair-color” yarmulke is the only visible religious item that can be worn with the uniform.
It said the Navy has received ”a handful” of requests to wear other religious items by sailors of varying faiths since the uniform policy was implemented in December 1977.
”The requests have been disapproved because they do not fit discreetly with the military uniform, interfere with military headgear, and may not meet safety standards,” the Navy statement read.