Religious 'ghosts' haunt coverage of hijab controversy at Georgia State

Muslim college student fights for her right to wear a hijab: good, controversial piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

At least until you see that much of the article was drawn from the campus newspaper, the Georgia State Signal. And both stories are haunted by religious "ghosts" -- the omission of the faith-based objections underlying the student's protest.

You’ve no doubt read about hijab cases before, often involving students or office workers. Nabila Khan's story is a more extreme case, an acid test for individual freedom: the niqab, which not only covers a woman's hair and neck, but envelops her face except for her eyes. 

So her story carries a greater punch, which the Constitution adroitly summarizes:

During her first week of school, a Muslim student was asked to remove her veil by a Georgia State University teacher. She refused.
Nabila Khan, a first-year student, is now at the center of a controversy about religious freedom.
She told The Signal, the school’s newspaper, that the teacher held her back after class and asked her not to conceal her face while in class, as was written in the syllabus. Khan refused, and said she believed being required to remove her niqab violated her rights to freedom of speech and religion.
Khan said in the article that she chooses to wear the niqab, which is a veil that covers all but the eyes, to work and school.
“Many people have this misconception that, as Muslim women, we’re oppressed or forced to wear it. For me, it’s a choice. My parents never forced me to wear it,” she said.

It's a compelling, counterintuitive treatment of a news story: the head covering not as a symbol of an oppressed gender, but as an individual religious choice. But how original? Have a look at the Signal's version:

On Aug. 25, during Khan’s first week of college, one of her teachers held her after class to request she not conceal her face. Khan refused, claiming such an ask violated her right to freely exercise her religious beliefs.
“I wear it to work. I wear it to school,” she told The Signal about her niqab. “Many people have this misconception that, as Muslim women, we’re oppressed or forced to wear it. For me, it’s a choice. My parents never forced me to wear it.”
Khan said she feels proud and “protected” when wearing her niqab. “This is the only way I can practice my religion the way I believe it’s meant to be practiced,” she said.

Now, no one blames the Constitution for referencing another article; after all, it freely acknowledges the source. But shouldn't the result be more reporting, less cutting and pasting?

Both articles note a number of conflicts:

* A state ban on masks, passed six decades ago to prevent Klansmen from wearing hoods in public.

* A university rule permitting veils on campus for religious purposes, although Khan's teacher seemed unaware of that.

* The First Amendment, which Khan says guarantees the right to wear her niqab.

* An argument from State Sen. Josh McKoon that if his religious-objection bill had passed, it would have made it easier for Khan to sue for her right to a niqab. He says the bill, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, would have required the university to show a "compelling interest" in banning the Muslim garb.

So the Atlanta newspaper had plenty to explore. What did it add? Unfortunately, not a lot. And it omits at least one thing that the Signal added: how the matter was resolved.

Both articles say also that the university took Khan's side. But only the Signal added how her teacher took it:

But when Khan told the teacher she was reaching out to school officials and a lawyer, her teacher backpedaled, deferring the official decision to Georgia State’s administration.
University spokeswoman Andrea Jones told The Signal, “The university is public property, and we permit face veils as religious accommodation. There is nothing in the code of conduct that specifically addresses face covering,” she said. Sonja Roberts, a spokeswoman for the University System of Georgia, backed the school’s stance.
Khan, who said the teacher’s approach was “very respectful,” said she harbors no ill will and believes the teacher is merely a stickler for the rules.

Neither article, BTW, names the teacher. The Signal says Khan asked them not to say. And the AJC didn’t bother to find out.

Nor does either account deals with the obvious question: What, in fact, does Islam say about a woman covering her face and/or hair? Are Islamic beliefs on the topic so well known that they don’t bear repeating? 

All we get is someone from the Council on American-Islamic Relations telling the Signal that most Muslim women "believe in wearing a hair scarf as a duty to God." What kind of duty? 

Quranic verses on the topic, such as surah 24: 31, are not hard to find:

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands…

Now, that's not a lot to prompt a woman to conceal everything but her eyes. So, interpretation by local source would have been just the thing. Someone like Abbas Barzegar, an assistant professor of Islam at Georgia State, as well as an advisor for the Muslim Students Association there.

Maybe the prof wasn’t in? Well, how about an imam at one of the seven mosques in the Atlanta area?

Readers could also have been told the varieties of hijab in various cultures, as in the picture at the top of this post. I even found an article on differences between a hijab and a niqab. For one, the latter is most often seen in the Arabian peninsula -- not only Saudi Arabia but Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

I found this passage interesting from the aforementioned site, Hijabi World:

Both headdresses are worn by Muslim women around the world in public places and the purpose is to be modest and avoid unfavorable comments by passerby people or even an instance of bad-eye or evil-eye which can bring you misfortune. So even though it is not compulsory in the religion, it is still encouraged a lot as source of women veiling themselves from unnecessary attention.

Nice, simple, human description. And suitable for copying and pasting.

Whether a niqab is appropriate college garb is, as President Obama might say, above my pay grade. But asking questions, consulting several sources, adding background, uncovering basic motives -- that’s part of newsroom culture.  Or it used to be.

Thumbnail: Woman in Yemen in a niqab, photographed by Steve Evans on Flickr. Used by permission (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Graphic: Different types of Islamic headgear for women, by Amanda La Bode via

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