Opinion

Dear Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats: A hijab is not a hat

Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar, with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, right, speaks about the party's legislative priorities when Democrats assume the majority in the 116th Congress in January, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, on Nov. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — After Democrats take control of the U.S. House of Representatives today, one of their first agenda items is to change an 1837 rule banning hats on the House floor, in deference to a new Muslim congresswoman who wears religious headwear known as hijab.

You might think that as a scholar who has studied Muslim women’s sartorial choices for more than a decade I’d be excited by this news. But I find myself disappointed and uneasy.

Disappointed because Democrats think they need to change a 182-year-old rule in order to accommodate Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s headscarf, a bit of attire that should be automatically protected by the First Amendment.

Uneasy because the premise for their proposal is that a hijab might be reasonably equated with a hat. We have conflated religious expression and fashion too often in the United States, and it must stop. A Muslim woman’s headscarf has literally nothing in common with a hat other than it is on top of her head.

For the faithful who believe their hijab is a religious obligation, to remove a headscarf is not like removing a hat. It is more like getting pantsed. And all the representatives in 1837, I assure you, wore pants.

The chamber of the House of Representatives is seen before members convene for the first day of the 116th Congress, with Democrats holding the majority, at the Capitol in Washington, on Jan. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

There is a great diversity of opinions within the Muslim community about whether or not Muslim women should cover their heads. According to a 2017 poll by the Pew Research Center, nearly as many American Muslim women always wear the hijab (38 percent) as never wear it (42 percent).

But women who do choose to cover understand it to be a religious duty, grounded in the sacred sources of Islam. It is not a fashion statement, or a mere statement of Muslim identity, although it can be these things as well. A Muslim woman’s headscarf is not only a symbol of piety. Wearing it is what allows her to cultivate the virtue of modesty in the first place. If you think she can just take it off like a hat, you are missing the point.

The House hat ban, adopted to end what was seen as a stuffy holdover from the British Parliament, states: “During the session of the House, a Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner may not wear a hat.”

Earlier attempts to ban this custom might have been problematic for Omar — in 1822, for instance, Virginia Rep. Charles F. Mercer proposed that no member shall “remain in the Hall covered during the session of the House.” None was ever adopted, however, only the hat ban. And, once again, for those in the back, a hijab is not a hat.

To be fair, Democrats are trying to inoculate against future discrimination against religious minorities. They are worried that the old hat ban could also be used against Sikh men in turbans, Orthodox Jewish men in kippahs and even orthodox Jewish women who wear wigs. While I understand why the amendment is being proposed, I am disappointed it had to happen.

As an educator, I find even worse the rather anemic discussion this hat ban has sparked. News outlets, including Bustle, have reported that hijabs have been banned on the House floor since 1837. That is just inaccurate. No one in 1837 could have imagined a Muslim woman in Congress (a different problem), but the 1837 law was never intended to discriminate against religious minorities.

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)

Equating a hijab to a hat has dangerous implications beyond Congress. The New York Police Department has been forcing Muslim women to remove their hijabs for mug shots. When this is done in front of male officers and inmates, it violates the NYPD’s own internal policies, but even when the photographs are taken in private, the images circulate publicly. Associating hijab with hats in turn enables other forms of state-sponsored discrimination.

The truth is, many non-Muslims still think a headscarf is forced on women by Muslim men or that it’s an expression of an overzealous form of piety. Studies have shown that a woman wearing a hijab is more than twice as likely to be discriminated against.

On the House floor, a hijab will be seen by some as the sign of a worrisome creep of political Islam. But Omar can change all that — if people pay attention to her words and actions instead of her clothing. This hat ban is a distraction from that more important work.

(Liz Bucar is an associate professor of philosophy and religion at Northeastern University and the author of “Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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Liz Bucar

49 Comments

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  • Liz,
    I agree that it’s bad that so many Americans do not understand the role of a hijab. However I think that it is good that Congress is trying to address the issue of religious discrimination.

    I also think that it’s wonderful that you wrote this piece, because it is food for thought. Thank you.

  • It’s not just the Democrats who are at fault here. Republicans made statements that Rep. Omar should be forced to remove her hijab and were prepared to enforce it under the “no hats” rule if they retained the majority in the House. And they have repeatedly made statements that they will vote to keep the rule precisely for that reason. The author should have included Republicans in her article, because they need educated just as well.

  • Wanna talk Pelosi? No, not “Dear Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats: A hijab is not a hat”. But these two talking points, instead, for starters. My “hat[‘s]” off to the Black Agenda Report & The Center for Responsive Politics, for the much needed ice breaker around here!

    (1) “[Nancy] Pelosi’s ‘pay as you go’ federal spending may as well have been written by the Koch brothers. … Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic Party leadership have silenced and side lined what remains of any left wing tendency. … Democratic Party funders want austerity and permanent war and that is all we will be offered.”
    – Margaret Kimberley, Black Agenda Report, November 28, 2018.

    (2) “Nancy Pelosi … Rank: 6th in the House … with an estimated net worth of $100,643,521 in 2015.”
    – OpenSecrets: The Center for Responsive Politics.

  • “Disappointed because Democrats think they need to change a 182-year-old rule in order to accommodate Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s headscarf, a bit of attire that should be automatically protected by the First Amendment.”

    Because it is Congress, it is NOT “automatically protected by the First Amendment.”

    Members of Congress similarly cannot assert a First Amendment right to free speech on the floor.

    “Uneasy because the premise for their proposal is that a hijab might be reasonably equated with a hat.”

    The rule in question reads:

    “Every member shall remain uncovered during the sessions of the House.”

    and does not specifically mention hats, so there is no equation. A hijab, like a hat, covers the head.

  • It’s too bad that her God wouldn’t recognize her without her hijab. I got hit by lightning once because my God didn’t like the color of my socks. Perhaps we both have the same God? Rest assured, there will be an amendment for that.

  • I am sure if it were a bonnet on a Mennonite woman, a yamaka on a Jewish man, or a wig on a cancer patient; nobody would make a fuss. What is really important is what is inside the head not what is on top of the head.

    Security will make sure there are no weapons or bombs inside the head cover.

  • I wasn’t aware that citizens lose their right to First Amendment protections when they take public office. What secret law book is that written in?

  • Please, please do research before “reporting”. The rule in question makes no mention of “hat” – it says “head covering”, which includes hijab. Did Speaker Pelosi refer to Rep. Omar’s hijab as a “hat”? If not, please take this energy and use it for an actual controversy. Thanks.

  • The rule says “head covering” – that’s why the dispensation was needed. It doesn’t specify “hats”.

  • Citizens don’t lose their right to First Amendment protections when they take public office, as citizens.

    But the discussion was not about citizens as citizens, but members of Congress as members of Congress.

    As members of Congress they follow the rules of the House or Senate. If they do not follow them, they can incur sanctions up to and including removal.

    Since the Constitution separates the powers of the Federal Government – that’s the “secret law book” – a member of Congress cannot appeal a rule or a ruling to anyone.

    Simple, eh?

  • I don’t think the point of changing the rules regarding wearing hats means that hats are equated with hijabs.

    Rather it is recognizing that a cultural way of evaluating what is proper attire is being changed because the culture has changed. When the rule regarding hats was implemented only men were elected to public office and it was considered rude for a man to wear a hat inside a home, office, public space in a building.

    Those who want to equate wearing a hijab with a hat are doing it to be mean – to be anti-woman, to be anti-Muslim, to be against other cultural/ religious expressions of appropriate attire other than their own.

    I think the education of the public regarding different clothing worn by people for religious purposes needs to pick up speed. I would have thought this changing of the rules in the U.S. House and Senate would have been a chance to do that. But, perhaps not making a big point of it is valuable, too. See it as a normal response to how an inclusive culture needs to act when presented with the dilemma of a social rule that violates how someone chooses to practice their faith or express a virtue. We learn, we change the rules to reflect a new understanding. And we move on. Treat it as normal, routine and open the mind to not getting all out of joint when we run into a cultural/religious/social practice that doesn’t fit what we have assumed is the norm.

  • “a headscarf is forced on women by Muslim men” Often true.

    “it’s an expression of an overzealous form of piety” Also often true.

  • In fact the Constitution overrides whatever you apparently think applies.

    There is no court that can judge the rules of the Congress.

  • Yeah, citizens do not cease being citizens by also being members of congress.

    I don’t know about the rules being some secret unlimited power of congress with no constitutional limits. That doesn’t excuse dumb rules though.

  • Yes, as citizens they can do whatever they wish.

    They can wear buckets on their heads, chamber pots, or deer antlers.

    While on the floor of the Congress, however, they must comport with the rules or be sanctioned or expelled.

    Your continued use of the word “secret” is perplexing indeed when it is common knowledge that Congress makes and enforce its own rules. It is the Legislative Branch, and that is pretty plainly noted in the Constitution.

  • There is the possibility of suing congress. You keep insisting the legislative branch has some unique power over and above other branches when it comes to its conduct, but that isn’t so.

    Also, such rules require enforcement. Garnering the necessary support to overrule someone’s religious conscience to censure them, especially to the point of removal, is almost unheard of.

  • The author clearly states that the original purpose of the rule was to enforce etiquette in the style of British fashion: the rule was made regarding hats.

  • You do need a lesson in Constitutional law:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sovereign_immunity_in_the_United_States

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-congress-plays-by-different-rules-on-sexual-harassment-and-misconduct/2017/10/26/2b9a8412-b80c-11e7-9e58-e6288544af98_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c67119b511a5

    and so on.

    Btw, I did not insist “the legislative branch has some unique power over and above other branches when it comes to its conduct”.

    Every Federal court below the Supreme Court is a creation of Congress. That means Congress can restrict any other court’s jurisdiction, and it has done so in the past.

    Certainly no state court has any authority over Congress.

    If you look at the cases over which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction, you’ll find nothing which you permit you to sue the Congress. In short, you have no venues in which to bring suit.

    Amazing, but true.

    I’d get over it if I were you.

  • As far as I know, no member of Congressw has ever worn a yarmulke in Congress. Lieberman is Orthodox and he never did.

  • Its not a matter of interpretation. That was the express purpose, and now we are arguing over a rule dictating fashion etiquette for Victorians being used for religious persecution.

  • Clearly it is open to interpretation, if this discussion is anything to go by, and the fact that the Leader believes there needs to be an amendment/rule change. Furthermore, there was a 2012 amendment to include hoods in the ban – hoods are not hats, are they? So rather obviously, it’s not now and in the past has not been limited to hats and any clarification of the rule doesn’t imply that Pelosi thinks hijabs are hats.

  • The point is that the rule equates religious conscience to fashion. Rather than add an exception or stress a right to religious expression, they are just leaving the hijab in that same broad category of fashion.

  • Whether or not a Jewish member of congress ever wore a yamaka on the floor is not important. It should be their right if they believe it is part of their religion or an orthodox Jewish woman wearing a scarf or wig.

  • “I reject your facts.”
    – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

    I can just hear her snap back like that at Liz Bucar, “the author of ‘Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress”, letter-writing to her with a “Dear Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats: A hijab is not a hat” opening statement. Can’t you? I’m sure Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen can.

    Last week, see, Pelosi interrupted Nielsen’s presentation of statistics related to the U.S./Mexican border on criminal illegal immigrants attempting to trespass last year, telling her off, “I reject your facts.” It was very clear to Nielsen in her Twitter press release dating January 2, 2019, that Pelosi just refused “to listen & be part of the solution.”

    But can Bucar ever say that about her? That it’s never in Pelosi’s political D.N.A “to listen & be part of the solution”?

    DEAR LIZ: I DARE YOU TO.

    Source: Rebecca Ballhaus, Alex Leary and Michael C. Bender, “Trump Considers Declaring National Emergency to Build Border Wall”, Wall Street Journal”, January 4, 2019.

  • I agree with you. My point was that the former Congressional rules weren’t just singling out Muslims.

  • no religious garb or symbols of any kind should be allowed in the House or Senate chamber. Leave those at home. The legislative chambers represents the body politic not religious community and yes the Congress under the Constitution has the Constitutional prerogative to determine its own rules of conduct and dress.

  • The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Proscribing “religious garb” in the House and/or Senate chambers would be a violation of the First Amendment.

    I don’t see the problem with a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, or a Sikh wearing a turban, or a devout Jewish male wearing a kippah, or a Muslim male wearing a kufi, or a Christian wearing a crucifix on a chain. I don’t see how that offends anyone.

    I think that the more important issue is whether or not certain groups try to impose their religious perspectives on others. That becomes problematic.

  • I think they should change the rules to enforce bucket-wearing when they are voting on pay-raises. They could do this while they work on the head-covering rule. This would alert citizens watching C-Span.

  • I agree, when the rule was drawn up the thought of a Muslim or a woman in congress was not even a consideration.

  • I agree with your last statement completely. However your second sentence is simply inaccurate as any member of the Federal judiciary would tell you.

  • Maybe it is a digression from the subject at hand. But I cannot help pointing out the obvious paradox that in this Time and Age scantily clad socialites are taken as sartorial trend-setters. When you have ladies ( and men) who are contrarian in their dressing adding a few more yards of clothing on their person some people become uncomfortable be it a hijab or a turban. I fear the day wnen nakedness becomes a norm and a mere sight of shirt and trouser creates hysteria in the beholder !

  • Because, as a practical matter, the Rs in Congress today will undoubtedly use it as a distraction and/or at an opportune time to prevent those wearing things associated w/their religions from voting. Y’all wanna ignore the overall context of the situation. It’s not just the historical POV with which we are concerned, but TODAY and how it might be used to negatively impact these individuals. Stop being so naive and broaden your vision. Nancy Pelosi knows what she’s doing.

  • “… any member of the federal judiciary”…… Hmmmm. The law on the establishment clause is not nearly as settled as that.

  • once again we disagree. Suggesting that the Congress does not have the constitutional right and prerogative to establish its own rules as regards religious garb is no different than the argument that fundamentalists give that Nativity scenes and Ten Commandment monuments on government property are not in violation of the separation clause and is in fact simply an exercise of their first Amendment rights! The Courts do not agree!

  • I would suggest that hats play a similar role for some non-Muslims. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Hats should be welcome as well, if they truly represent a speech act or if they are a demonstration of religious affiliation. Why not go ahead and get rid of the old rule? Of course, in those days, there were only men on the floor and taking off the hat was a sign of respect. Times have changed. Now people don’t respect authority. So Let women into the halls of congress and lots of scarves, headcoverings, and hats. … and lots of disrespect.

  • Alexandra, I am not a jurist even so I can and do appreciate the relevant issues and the complexity of the arguments thereunto appertaining. I also appreciate sincerely your scholarship in this question. Again for me, and if I may be so presumptuous, I think for many, the question is simply the right of the legislative branch to decide its own rules of decorum and dress. I have friends who have pointed out to me what they see as a glaring contradiction between the separation clause and the institution of the office of House and Senate chaplains but concede the point that this is another example of the legislative houses exercising their Constitutional right to establish its own canons of operation. Lastly I think it sets a dangerous precedent to allow religious garb which clearly represents religion rather than representation of the body politic. Leave your religious symbolism at the door of the chamber.

  • I also believe you are missing or ignoring some key pieces of information both on on the reason (reaction to those trying to make the Congresswoman remove it) and that the rule is about head covering.

  • Sorry, but as an extremely religiously involved person, and generally a very liberal one, this is just another example of the hyper-reactivity of society (and IMHO it is all over both sides of the political spectrum), and in particular not being able to do anything right, or good enough to appease, in this case, the social-justice police.

    The Merriam-Webster definition for hat is, first and foremost, “a covering for the head…” and even “a distinctive head covering worn as a symbol of office.” The Cambridge dictionary defines hat as “a piece of clothing for the head.”

    Religious head coverings are many, we have them in Buddhism, and they exist in each of the Abrahamic, Animistic/Primal and Asian faiths. Hell, I personally have been assigned and make use of religious head coverings, and you know what we call them? Hats.

    The word hat does not imply something that is merely a matter of style, and the word is not pejorative, it’s functional. There is a law banning hats, that is head coverings of any type, and as a matter of religious consideration, leadership seeks to remove that statute, and what were left with is complaint. American society has become a constant barrage of whining.

    And I’m not going to touch the head covering as pants argument. Okay, yes I am. No, no hats are not pants. They may be very meaningful religious symbols, and symbols of modesty, and it should be each individual’s prerogative and right to be as modest as they feel called to be, but this hyperbolic conflating of issues is completely out of control.

    And naturally this piece is written by a typical white, non-Muslim, PhD academician. Go figure. A party without experience or interest writing about something that does not effect her, and getting it published widely. This is how the “social justice police” (re: my OP) are just variants of the same loud mouths on the far right, who ultimately just serve to silence and muddle the actual voices of the oppressed.

    There. No I’m off to make breakfast.

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