It’s not a hat, Judge; it’s a hijab


OPEN LETTER

August 27, 2009

The Honorable Judge William Callahan
Third Judicial Circuit Court of Michigan
County of Wayne, Family Division

Dear Sir:

I am writing on behalf of Muslim women in America concerning your requirement that Raneen Albaghdady remove her hijab on June 16 before you would hear her case. If you recall, you told her “no hats allowed in the courtroom.”

I suspect that you are familiar with the incident in question as Raneen Albaghdady and CAIR-MI reportedly filed suit against you and Wayne County yesterday in federal court, alleging violations of the First Amendment, Equal Protection Clause, and 42 U.S.C. §1983.

According to the complaint, Wayne County has “the highest population of Arabs outside of the Middle East, and one of the largest Muslim communities in the United States.”

Perhaps, you were not aware of these statistics at the time. But it seems that with such a large Muslim population in your area, you likely have seen many Muslim women wearing headscarves. It also is a reasonable assumption that you knew or suspected that they did so for religious reasons.

Additionally, I assume a learned man like you is aware of President Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4. It was widely reported and the video and transcript are available on the official White House website. Among his many remarks intended to promote interfaith cooperation and understanding, President Obama stated:

Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state in our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That’s why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it. (emphasis supplied)

With this and other recent media coverage of Islamic head coverings, your statement –“no hats allowed in the courtroom”–is somewhat baffling. But in the event that you truly did or do not know the difference, I would like to state now: It’s not a hat, Judge; it’s a hijab!

A hijab is a popular name for the headscarf that a Muslim woman wears to cover her hair and neck. Many Muslim women do not consider a hijab optional attire, nor do they wear it as adornment. Imagine if you were told to undress before you could present your case to a judge. That is exactly what you asked Raneen Albaghdady to do on June 16.

Your action sets a dangerous precedent. Recently, the Michigan Supreme Court approved by a 5-2 decision an amendment to Rule 611 of the Michigan Rules of Evidence. The amendment states:

(b) Appearance of Parties and Witnesses. The court shall exercise reasonable control over the appearance of parties and witnesses so as to (1) ensure that the demeanor of such persons may be observed and assessed by the fact-finder, and (2) to ensure the accurate identification of such persons.”

As you undoubtedly are aware, the amendment was proposed in response to a case where another Muslim woman refused to remove her niqab in court and that judge dismissed her case. A niqab is different than a hijab as it covers the hair, neck and face, leaving only the eyes exposed. The judge there claimed that he needed to see the woman’s face to assess her credibility.

Concerned that many Muslim women would be denied their day in court and with other potentially devastating consequences, the ACLU of Michigan submitted a comment to the proposed amendment. The comment largely addressed the ability to assess credibility without seeing a person’s face.

By stark contrast, Raneen Albaghdady’s face was visible to you. You could observe her demeanor and assess her credibility. There was no question of a false identification.

Quite simply, you did not exhibit “reasonable control over the appearance” of a party in your courtroom. In fact, demanding that she remove her hijab was unreasonable and violates the spirit of related Rule 611(a), which states that the court should protect witnesses from “undue embarrassment”.

Now that the difference between a hat and a hijab has been clarified and that your demand on June 16 cannot be justified under Rule 611(b), the honorable course of action would be to send a letter of apology to Raneen Albaghdady for the unfortunate misunderstanding and never again require a woman to undress in your courtroom.

Such a conciliatory gesture would set a shining example for other Michigan judges who may confuse a hat with religiously-mandated attire.

Respectively,

J. Samia Mair
Baltimore Muslim Examiner

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