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Ohio School Bars Girl Wearing Muslim Scarf

Source: Plain Dealer

Cleveland, OHIO; August 28, 2003 - Amal Jamal is not welcome at Regina High School anymore.

The returning senior learned Monday as she stood in line to buy textbooks that she now violates her Catholic school dress code by wearing a Muslim headscarf, or hajib. Surrounded by classmates, Amal put down her books, fought back tears and left.

"I was in shock; I didnīt understand," Amal said. "All along, they gave me a room to pray in. They asked me questions about Islam. They always accepted me for who I was. Now they have decided it is against school policy to wear my hajib."

Amal, a soft-spoken 17-year-old, sat in her Euclid living room yesterday, too stunned to consider what she might do next as her 270 schoolmates attended a second day of classes on the South Euclid campus. Amal said she was stung that no administrator, teacher or student had called her or tried to help.

"I feel very bad about this situation. Iīve agonized over it," said Sister Maureen Burke, Reginaīs principal for 12 years. "Amal is a wonderful young woman. The family is very fine. . . . But the uniform issue is very important to who we are as a Catholic school."

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations in Washington, DC, said he knew of no other American private school dismissing a Muslim girl in this way. "Itīs just ridiculous," he said. "You have a religious school denying a student the right to her religious belief."

Yesterday Hooper called Burke in an effort to intervene. Burke explained that a private school had a right to enforce its particular rules. In contrast, no American public school can prohibit a girl from wearing a religious headscarf, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

But uniforms are often at the core of Catholic school culture, and enforcement can be a contentious matter, especially among adolescents. The Regina handbook includes a sentence reading, "No hats, no bandannas or head wraps are permitted."

Burke elaborated: "Itīs a broad-based policy. Itīs certainly not just about do-rags or turbans or African headdresses. The purpose of the uniform is to bring everybody together, not to be distracted by self- expression."

Burke said she consulted with faculty advisers Monday night. The teachers agreed, she said, that there should be no tinkering with the dress code to accommodate Amal.

The girl in question, who has a 3.2 GPA and was a member of Students Against Drunk Driving, said she began wearing the hajib everywhere in June, as her faith deepened. Her older sister, Ekram, who graduated from Regina this spring, began wearing the hajib about a week earlier. She now covers her head to attend classes at Cleveland State University.

Amal said there was no going back on her decision. "Now I canīt take it off at all in public, in front of men," she said. "I have male teachers, so I must be allowed to wear it full time."

Samira Jamal, Amalīs mother, said she considers herself a proud enforcer of school uniform regulations, making sure her daughtersī plaid skirts never drifted above the knee. She said she helped Amal select a flattering white hajib to coordinate with the Regina blouse and cardigan. She said the family has always been early with tuition payments, which amount to about $6,000 per year.

"We know the Catholics themselves are very accepting of other religions," said Samira Jamal, who immigrated with her parents from a village in Palestine. "We wanted a girlsī school and a good college prep program. The lack of discrimination had a lot to do with our decision [to pick Regina]."

Samira Jamal and her husband Ahmad have six children and own a Cleveland wholesale business. "We believe in our daughtersī education," Ahmad said. "We wanted them to be proud and get their degree from Regina."

Samira Jamal said she gladly addressed religion classes and participated in Reginaīs "Erase the Hate" week after the attacks of September 11. She said when asked last year why her daughters wore no scarf, she explained to students that it is up to a Muslim girl to decide when she is ready.

In an interesting parallel, Gilmour Academy in Gates Mills wrestled over whether to allow a Sikh student to wear his turban, a requirement of all male Sikhs. After consulting the Sikh community, the Catholic school decided to bend the dress code and let the seventh-grader report to class this week in his turban.

"I think it went well," said the principal, Brother Robert Lavelle. "I found it to be an education for myself in understanding the Sikh community."

For her part, Amal said she may have picked up a hard lesson. "Be aware of the world," she said. "People donīt always practice what they preach."