Face Veils: Bans in Europe Fail to Take Hold in U.S.

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Wherever face veils go, controversy often follows. In January, almost as soon as a new rule kicked in that bans students from wearing veils and other clothing on campus that obscures their faces, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) added a religious exemption, following accusations of discrimination. Despite speculation that the policy was connected to the October arrest of a Muslim former student suspected of planning terror attacks, a spokesman for the college said that the rule had been implemented for safety reasons and was not directed toward any particular student group.

While the incident was ultimately a minor one — at this private institution, only two of the more than 4,000 students wear veils — it was the first significant flare-up in the U.S. since a Florida woman sued the state in 2002 for refusing to allow her to wear a veil in her driver's license photo. (She lost on appeal.) Meanwhile, the debate over head coverings has been raging in Europe and parts of the Middle East over whether schools and other institutions can ban Muslim clothing such as the hijab (headscarf), the niqab (veil with an opening for the eyes), or the burka (piece of fabric that covers the entire face and body).

England and France both have rules that allow for the restriction of such clothing in schools. The same is true in Egypt, where a Cairo court recently supported the secular government's decision to ban students from wearing the niqab while taking examinations. The decision, which joins another ruling in this predominantly Muslim country that forbids women from wearing veils in dormitories, is ostensibly designed to prevent students from disguising themselves to take tests for others.

In the U.S., the Education Testing Service, which administers several national exams, requires photographic identification, such as a driver's license or school ID, in order to take the SAT. For the GRE graduate-school exam, a photo must be taken at the actual test site. In both cases, ETS asks people taking the test who may be wearing a veil to remove their face covering in order to be identified and prevent any fraud. "We have not had any issues related to this policy," which has been in place for more than a decade, says Mark McNutt, an ETS spokesman.

One reason why religious head coverings have yet to emerge in the U.S. as a significant issue is because of the tiny number of American Muslims who actually cover up. "It's very unpopular," says Jamillah Karim, an assistant professor in religious studies at Spelman College. "A minority of a minority of Muslim women here wear the face veil. It's just not practiced enough where it would become an issue at schools."

Wearing the niqab is viewed as a more conservative practice, distinct from the more commonly seen, and largely stigma-free, hijab. American Muslims, by and large, are reluctant to appear too conservative, says Kathleen Moore, professor of religious studies at University of California at Santa Barbara. "While they are struggling internally to be tolerant of each other's viewpoints about religion, they are also struggling outward to negotiate rights with the broader American society," she says. "From their voices, you hear that the face veil is something that shouldn't be practiced because it can be associated with extremism."

Sarah Jukaku, a fifth-year senior at the University of Michigan and president of the school's Muslim Student Association, has a few friends who choose to cover their faces. They've never had problems with taking any tests ("If there's only one person in a class who chooses to wear a veil, I think the teacher would be able to easily tell if they're the one actually taking an exam," she says) or with discrimination from fellow students. In fact, says Jukaku, the pressure may come from somewhere unexpected — their own families. "A lot of my friends who choose to cover their face, or even just their hair, go against their parents," she says. "Their parents are worried about a backlash against their daughters." Yet here in America, as demonstrated in the brief but negative response to MCPHS's policy, backlash can travel in many directions.