To wear the hijab in this US school, you need a letter from ‘clergy’ – Zainab Iqbal

An eighth-grade student in Malden, Massachusetts, received a uniform violation for wearing a hijab. According to the school policy, a hijab can only be worn after students submit a letter from a “member of the clergy”.

A screen grab of the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Massachusetts (Google Maps). Photo: Middle East Eye

The incident occurred on 18 August, the first day of classes at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School (MVRCS). The eighth-grade student received a school uniform compliance form which stated that an aspect of the uniform was out of compliance. The uniform infraction? The reason, it said, was the “hijab.

In a post that has gone viral, the student’s sister said the young girl came home crying “and in a horrible emotional state refusing to go to school tomorrow”.

Her sister wrote that ten years ago when she herself was in the fifth grade, she was forced to stay in the detention office until her parents obtained a letter from a religious leader saying that “this was a part of the Muslim religion for Muslim women to dress modestly”.

Gary Christenson, the mayor of Malden, said that he was saddened to learn of this issue.

“I understand that MVRCS has been unwavering in the commitment to its uniform policy, however, as a prominent member of our Muslim community stated, wearing hijab is a protected right, it is not part of a uniform and should not be looked at as such,” he said in a statement.

He said he spoke with the school superintendent and the chair of the school board and encouraged them to create a policy that “better reflects the open-minded approach we all must commit to and based on those conversations, I am hopeful that there will be a change accordingly in the near future”.

When in doubt, ask the mosque

Ahmed Kadmiri is a member of the At-Taqwa Mosque, one of two mosques in Malden. He said that while his mosque has in the past sent letters related to Covid vaccinations and flu shots, they had never sent one regarding hijabs.

The Malden school incident is an opportunity for all schools to have serious cultural competency programmes for teachers to understand their students better. He said that when in doubt, charter schools should reach out to the students’ respective faith organisations, such as a mosque, “without having to put students, their families, and their communities through psychological or emotional issues”.

“I believe that hijab is one of the apparent signs for identifying a Muslim woman,” he said. “Hijab is not a flu shot or a Covid vaccine that should require a clearance letter from clergy.”

The student is currently attending school while wearing the hijab. According to school superintendent Alex Dan, there were no consequences for the violation and the form sent home was meant to start a conversation with the family about obtaining a religious accommodation.

“While we would like to reiterate that the well-respected staff member overseeing the process should bear no responsibility for what has transpired, we understand how our handling of the situation came across as insensitive and look forward to using this moment as a learning opportunity to improve our policies and procedures,” the statement read.

“It has always been our intention to preserve our culture of academic success and take religious accommodations to the Uniform Policy very seriously. This experience has shown us that we can and need to adjust our practices. We have decided to renew our commitment to this mission for students of all faiths.”

Mohamed Chouiki is a youth mentor at the Malden Islamic Center. His family is also very close to the young girl’s family. When he first heard about the incident, he said he wasn’t surprised and explained that the school is “extremely strict for no reason”.

“My friends have gotten detention for having a beard or a moustache,” he said.

Chouiki’s brother attended the same school until he took him out. He recalled a time when he had a meeting with the school’s principal about his brother.

“He kept telling me like, ‘If you need a translator, I can bring you a translator.’ And this didn’t happen once. This happened multiple times. Every time I used to talk to him, he’d be like, ‘I can bring you a translator.’ I’m like, ‘Listen, I’m speaking to you. I’m saying I speak English. Like you hear me speaking English.'”

According to Chouiki, there are a lot of Muslims in Malden. Even in the charter school itself, Muslim students roam the hallways. He explained that because Malden is extremely diverse, there have never been any big issues in the community between Muslims and non-Muslims, which is why this whole incident is so bizarre.

Chouiki says the young student at the centre of the controversy is like a little sister to him and is doing just fine.

“I’m sure she feels empowered. She has a ton of support,” he said.

This isn’t the first time the school has come under scrutiny. In 2017, they came under fire for a policy banning hair braid extensions. The parents of the 15-year-olds said their twin daughters, who are Black, were punished for wearing extensions while white students hadn’t been punished for violations of hairstyle regulations, the Associated Press reported.

In July, Governor Charlie Baker signed a law prompted by that incident to ban discrimination against natural and protective hairstyles in workplaces, school districts and school-related organisations in the state.

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office reacted

The protocol the school is reportedly using, involving disciplinary infractions and a required letter from clergy, is not consistent with the Memorandum of Agreement they entered with their office in 2017.

The AG’s office is currently looking into the incident.

Zainab Iqbal is a New York-based journalist. She writes about race and identity, Islamophobia and issues facing Muslims in the US.

Source: Middle East Eye


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