In 2006, in a small claims matter in Michigan, a Muslim woman, Ginnah Muhammed, refused to take off her face mask (niqab) while she testfied. Judge Paul Paruk dismissed her case. Muhammed sued, the ACLU backed her. They argued for a “religious exception” to courtroom attire. Although Muhammed’s small claim case was against a car rental agency, here is what Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan stated:
“The Michigan Supreme Court should not slam the door of justice on a category of women just because of their religious belief…Under the proposed rule, women who are sexually assaulted do not have their day in court if they wear a veil mandated by their religion.”
Sexual assault was not at issue nor was the victim afraid that testifying might lead to her death. Leave it to the ACLU to always get it wrong.
Finally, earlier this month, on June 17, 2009, the Michigan Supreme Court, in a 5-2 vote, ruled that a Judge had the power to “require witnesses to remove head or facial covering as (the witness) was testifying.” A Judge has the right to see a witness’s “facial expressions” to determine her “truthfulness” while she testifies.
Expect many more such cases. Indeed, expect Ginnah Muhammed to appeal this right up to the Supreme Court.
Both the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) have gone to court in Florida (2002), California (2005) , Michigan (2008), and Oklahoma (2008) to fight for a Muslim woman’s right to cover her hair or face—whether it is while being photographed for a driver’s license or for a police mug shot; or while working at McDonald’s or Abercrombie Kids. In 2007, CAIR wrote a letter on behalf of a Muslim woman in Georgia who refused to remove her headscarf in order to enter a courtroom to plead “not guilty” to a traffic ticket. In 2004, the Justice Department supported a lawsuit brought on behalf of a sixth grade student in Oklahoma who wanted to wear hijab in her public school. That same year, the school reviewed their policy, amended their dress code, paid the student an undisclosed sum, and allowed her to attend classes wearing hijab.
Religious Muslims are outraged that Christians can wear crucifixes, nuns and priests can wear habits, Jews can wear skullcaps or wigs and head coverings, Sikhs can wear turbans, Hindus can wear veils and saris–but that Muslims cannot wear burqas or niqab.
Of course, only the Islamic female religious attire masks all five senses and makes human interaction almost impossible. Hijab (a headcovering) is another matter entirely and is not under discussion here.
Many conservatives and religious people do not want the government telling them how to dress or limiting their private religious practices. Most progressives, including feminists, view the burqa, (full face and body shroud), niqab, (face mask plus head and body covering), and hijab (headcovering so that no hair shows), as either a Muslim woman’s religious right or as her culturally sanctioned expression of modesty. In addition, they may see the ban on the burqa as a form of “racial profiling,” or as “Islamophobic.”
I appreciate but respectfully disagree with both views. I believe that we must ban the burqa and niqab not only for reasons of national security, (something that Daniel Pipes has already argued), but also for health-related reasons–and on the grounds of women’s rights and human rights.
I will develop this argument at length in the future.