Interfaith Initiative: Supporting our dear hijabi sisters

A good friend, a sweet young woman, recent Penn State graduate, highly capable and interested in sales, telephoned a prospective employer — a local retail chain.

She was warmly invited to come interview for a job opening. The interviewer indicated she was well-qualified, then asked if she would remove her head covering (hijab) for the position, the lovely scarf she wears in public to follow her Muslim faith.

She said she would not be doing so. She was never called back. This happened repeatedly in applying for employment.

Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act makes it illegal to refuse to hire, or to discharge someone because of their race, sex, color, national origin, or religion. But some American women who came to Islam as adults and now wear hijab, have been faced with little choice to make a living for their children, and reluctantly remove this distinctive mark of religious principle while at work. Women who reached adulthood in settings where hijab is common are even more reluctant; removing it feels like being required to go “topless” would for many American women.

Some Muslim women have varying practices and do not adopt the head covering as a sign of modesty in appearance (similar to the way modesty of speech may be seen as incumbent upon Muslim men).

Recently a case came before the U.S. Supreme Court of a young woman denied employment at Abercrombie & Fitch because she refused to remove the hijab in a sales position, with the retailer absurdly arguing it didn’t know she was wearing it for religious reasons.

Although a decision has not yet been announced, the Supreme Court may have indicated its opinion when conservative justice Samuel Alito queried the Abercrombie lawyer about four prospective job applicants — a Sikh man wearing a turban, a Hasidic man wearing a hat, a Muslim woman wearing hijab, and a Catholic nun in a habit: “Do you think that those people have to say, ‘We just want to tell you, we’re dressed this way for a religious reason. We’re not just making a fashion statement’?”

Let me be clear: I never cover my head for religious reasons. While some Christian women interpret Christianity that way, I do not, and even as a child questioned wearing at least a hair-band on my head in church while my brothers did not. As an adult I declined to wear the “veil” that some women in my denomination either wear always or at least for Holy Communion. And the same mother of mine who used to cover her head in church often quoted to us the old patriotic saying, “I do not agree with your opinion, but I will defend to the death your right to hold it!”

But let me be clear about this as well: I am more likely to patronize a retailer that I know encourages freedom, justice and diversity for its employees. Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution; the First Amendment prohibits making any law impeding the free exercise of religion.

Yet here in supposedly enlightened State College, employers have shamefully abridged the rights of, and discriminated against, our dear hijabi sisters, refusing to hire them, or requiring them to alter their religious practice.