Columns Opinion Simran Jeet Singh: Articles of Faith

Welcome Muslim congresswomen by dropping ban on headwear

Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., right, heads to a Democratic Caucus meeting Nov. 15, 2018, in the basement of the Capitol in Washington as new members of the House and veteran representatives met to discuss their agenda when they become the majority in the 116th Congress. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — This month, for the first time in history, Americans elected two Muslim women to the U.S. Congress.

Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat who will represent Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, is the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress. Ilhan Omar, elected to represent Minnesota’s 5th District, is the first Somali-American woman, the first Minnesotan of color and the first refugee elected to Congress.

Given that Muslim women have been in the United States since before the nation’s founding, we can cheer the progress represented by the breaking of these glass ceilings, even if it’s upsetting that it has taken this long.

One way to celebrate is to change rules and customs that implicitly marginalize or exclude those who represent us. Omar is not even in office yet, but she is already making this a priority. Omar, who wears hijab, is pushing to allow religious headwear, such as Muslim hijabs, Jewish kippas and Sikh turbans.

Headwear of any kind has been banned from the House chamber since 1837. The rule, designed to outlaw the wearing of hats, was written at a time and by people who likely never imagined religious minorities rising up to help lead this nation. At Omar’s urging, Democratic leaders have proposed in their draft rules for the incoming Congress that religious headwear be permitted on the House floor.

To many Americans, it will seem like a no-brainer to update the headwear policy held by Congress and to uphold Omar’s constitutional right to practice her sincerely held religious beliefs. Rules like this were not likely intended to be malicious or exclusionary; it seems more likely that they were simply written without certain people in mind.

At the same time, policies like this — what we often refer to as structural discrimination – are pervasive in this country. I know because I’ve personally encountered them. Growing up in Texas, for instance, my brothers and I encountered many situations where basketball referees and coaches told us we couldn’t play with our turbans.

It was only last year that the international governing body for basketball – FIBA – updated its rules to allow players, who had been forced to choose between their love for sport and faith, to hit the court with their heads covered. The rule, the authorities had explained, was in place to ensure the safety of all competitors.

As someone who has grown up playing basketball all his life, I promise you that the cloth on my head poses no more of a threat than any other article of clothing on my body.

Minnesota state Rep. Ilhan Omar, center, celebrates after her congressional 5th District primary victory on Aug. 14, 2018, in Minneapolis. (Mark Vancleave/Star Tribune via AP)

If Congress is guilty of maintaining outdated policies that infringe on religious freedoms, how can Americans expect to change these discriminatory policies in everyday life?

When the House of Representatives, our most democratic institution, has rules in place that discriminate against religious minorities, it sends the message that it’s OK to discriminate everywhere against people based on how they look or what they believe.

It’s particularly ironic that a rule bars religious freedom in the halls of Congress given that the First Amendment specifically states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … ”

On the other hand, Congress could send the opposite message by updating its policies and showing that it will not tolerate wrongful discrimination anywhere on the basis of religious identity.

By adjusting a rule that never intended to discriminate, Congress could teach a crucial less about discrimination: that intention is not the measure of justice. Justice must also account for how our customs and routines affect everyone. As we rid ourselves of rules that represent our blind mistreatment and oppression of entire communities, we all become better citizens.

The ascendance of leaders like Omar from historically marginalized communities offers us a tremendous opportunity to learn, reflect, grow and do better. Let’s make sure that we recognize this blessing and make the most of these opportunities.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Simran Jeet Singh

Simran Jeet Singh is a scholar of religion currently based at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. He is also senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition.

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