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ASU police are accused of removing hijabs. This experts says that plays into Muslim misconceptions

As student protests continue on college campuses in Arizona and around the country, one story from Arizona State University’s arrests earlier this month has caught the attention of many. Campus police are accused of removing the hijabs of four Muslim women who had been arrested in the midst of the protests.

Now, ABC15 reports, those women are considering legal action. ASU has said it is reviewing the incident.

There have been multiple cases like this in recent years. Many have resulted in lawsuits that have been settled, sometimes for millions of dollars.

Asma Uddin says it’s all part of a larger problem of misconceptions of Muslims — and Muslim women, in particular.

Uddin is a fellow with the Aspen Institute's Religion and Society program, as well as the author of many books about Muslim’s and religious liberty. Uddin spoke with The Show about the religious significance of hijabs for Muslim women and more.

Full conversation

ASMA UDDIN: Well, the headscarf plays an extremely prominent role in Islam. Of course, every person who wears it, every woman who wears it comes to it with her own sort of subjective experiences and interpretations of her religion. But across the board, she's wearing it because it's a reflection of, sort of her devotion to God, her willingness and desire to please God and to abide by what she understands to be an obligation of her religion. Beyond that, I think there might be other things associated with, as with pretty much everything we wear. Oftentimes it's a, it's a form of self-expression. And so hijab also serves that function for many people. Fundamentally, as a religious obligation, it sort of carries a sort of central role in people's religious identity and their idea of, of whether they're doing the thing that is moral or that is right and that God wants them to do in public spaces.

Because hijab is generally for public spaces or in spaces where you're with men who are not related to you. Even though it looks like it would just be an accessory, for many Muslim women who wear it, it serves as the same function as clothing that covers something that's intimate that you don't want exposed in public. And so when somebody forcibly removes it, it's essentially the same as forcibly removing something that you think would otherwise expose you in a really sort of problematic and deeply sort of offensive way in public.

LAUREN GILGER: That's really interesting. And in a way I had never heard it described. Can you tell us what the law says about this? Like, I know individual police departments might have different policies or might not have any policies on hijabs in particular. But like there have been lawsuits happening about this around the country. I mean, is there, is there anything in the law that describes how law enforcement should address religious dress?

UDDIN: So it falls under the bigger umbrella of religious accommodations. And religious accommodations could be for a wide range of things that religious individuals need in order to be able to live out their faith in the public space. And religious garb is something that again is not unique to Muslim women or Muslims generally. It's something that a diverse array of religious believers practice in some way, right. So whether it be Jewish men who wear yarmulkes or orthodox Jewish women who cover their hair with a wig or in some other way, or if it's Amish women or other Mennonite women who wear something on their heads, if it's Sikh men who wear turbans, I mean, there's just an array of different types of things that will qualify as religious garb and a lot of cases, it's something that's very, you know, either highly encouraged or required by their respective faiths.

And our law understands that this is something that is a core part of the protection of freedom of religion and creates broad protections for that in the law. To say that when you're faced with this, when a government entity such as law enforcement, is faced with somebody who is wearing religious garb that they must accommodate the specific beliefs and practices around that religious garb.

GILGER: Do you think that there is a broader misunderstanding that happens? Not just among law enforcement. Of, of Muslim women and their motivations for wearing something like this.

UDDIN: 100%. I mean, we have a long history, not just nationally but globally of a sort of a deep misunderstanding and mistrust of Muslim religious garb. I mean, we've seen cases in Europe, in a number of different European countries, a number of them haven't gone to the European Court of Human Rights, different governments have banned, for example, the face veil that some, very few, but some Muslim women wear. And they see that as, as problematic on a number of fronts, whether it be creating security concerns, right? That was the argument made by France. Or that it just kind of makes people uncomfortable, which raised interesting questions during the pandemic, that some forms of face coverings didn't raise a lot of the same concerns that for some reason, that particular form of veil did.

But it's an ongoing conversation in a lot of Western societies that don't understand these forms of religious dress and often impose their own interpretations onto them, that it's something that a woman is being forced to wear, that it is sort of a symbol of her subjugation and quite paradoxically at the same time as sort of describing this modest religious dress as a form of submissiveness, it's also seen as a reflection of aggression. So somehow a Muslim woman is both submissive and aggressive at the same time. I'm not sure how that works. But you know, saying that this is somehow an expression of something that might be scary or nefarious.

GILGER: Do you think that that Islam and Muslim people are treated differently in this broader conversation in this country about not just religious garb as you're talking about there, but religious freedom?

UDDIN: 100%. I have a book called "When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America's Fight for Religious Freedom." And in it, I sort of take the reader through a wide array of different forms of religious exercise that Muslims engage in and that they're often receive some sort of resistance, either by political actors, by various nonprofits and activists who are set up essentially to generate fear and distrust the Muslims and color their religious exercise as something else. And also to some extent that, you know, there's empirical data demonstrating that judges actually also treat Muslim forms of religious exercise differently and often worse than other forms of religious exercise.

GILGER: So let's then lastly talk a little bit about potential solutions. I mean, maybe it's a little Pollyannish. But I wonder, do you think lawsuits and the ones that we've seen settled so far, a few of them seem to have resulted in policy changes for whatever specific police department was involved. But do you think this is about training law enforcement? Do you think it's about this kind of broader conversation and bringing that to light?

UDDIN: I think the fact that it keeps happening despite the fact that there's these multimillion dollar payouts, one lawsuit by itself having resulted in a $17.5 million settlement. And the fact that the police just keep doing it. I mean, there seems to be a fundamental inability to understand in the moment, especially that what is happening is fundamentally problematic from the perspective of religion and religious liberty and specifically the way that Muslim women need their religious requirements accommodated.

You know, but, but more broadly, I mean, in a lot of these cases, again, there's a very sort of Muslim specific part of it, but there's also, you know, resonances beyond to like other religions. As I noted, I mean, there's been incidents involving Sikh men with turbans and, and their rights to that religious garb being openly violate, violated. But beyond that, it's also just, I think increasingly a misunderstanding of religion, and the nature of what religious devotion and sense of religious obligation, like what that is and how people experience that and why it's important to respect that.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.