When considering a request to accommodate Muslim needs, one must ask the following: Does the desired accommodation infringe on the rights of others? Does it represent a special privilege that would never be extended to non-Muslims? Does it impose an unreasonable burden? If the answers to all three questions are no, then the arrangement may be tolerable.
Recent news items about hijabs (headscarves) and niqabs (face-covering veils) demonstrate the application of these criteria. In each of the below cases, the authority made a sensible decision:
- The husband of an Illinois woman accused of murder is outraged that police had her remove her headscarf for the booking photo, which later was made public. Comment: Police rely on more than just facial features to identify individuals, so it is logical to disallow headgear in mug shots. Officers treated the woman like anyone else; permitting her to be photographed with a head covering just because she is Muslim would constitute a privilege that would never be accorded to, say, a hooded robber.
A Muslim woman was asked to leave the line at a Maryland bank and be served in a back room because headscarves violate the "no hats, hoods, or sunglasses" policy. Comment: Many banks have instituted similar schemes to boost security. Permitting any covered person to remain in line would infringe on the rights of others to a safe visit.
A Canadian judge ordered a woman to remove her veil when testifying at a sexual assault trial. The defense lawyer had argued that "assessing her demeanor was of 'critical importance' when tailoring questioning." Comment: Other judges have cited the need to see the expressions of the witness to ascertain truth. Furthermore, allowing the woman to testify in a niqab would infringe on the right of the defendant to face his accuser.
A court rejected a Philadelphia cop's request that she be permitted to wear a hijab on duty, ruling that "uniform requirements are crucial to the safety of officers (so that the public will be able to identify officers as genuine, based on their uniform appearance)." Comment: Uniforms are meant to be uniform for a reason. While some jurisdictions have allowed hijabs for police, the safety of cops and the community should be paramount.
English fire departments have introduced new uniform options with Muslim women in mind: "full-length skirts, hijab headscarves, and long-sleeved shirts." Comment: Firefighters, unlike cops, do not walk the beat, so concerns raised in the previously discussed police lawsuit are not applicable here. Indeed, the new fire uniforms infringe on the rights of no one, may appeal (in part) to some non-Muslim women, and do not constitute an unreasonable burden for departments eager to attract recruits.
In their never-ending struggle to craft policies that balance minority and majority rights, governments, businesses, and other entities would be wise to study these examples.