You can wear a Muslim head scarf, and you can wear the uniform of the Junior ROTC. Just not at the same time.
That’s the word from the U.S. Army, which is supporting an officer’s ruling last month that a 14-year-old Tennessee girl could not wear her traditional head covering while in uniform at a parade.
The student, Demin Zawity, of Brentwood, Tenn., quit the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Ravenwood High School and returned to regular gym classes when commanding officers said she had to take off her hijab if she wanted to march in the homecoming parade.
"It was during Spirit Week. We were getting ready for the homecoming parade and the head officer said that I wouldn't be able to wear the head scarf while I had the uniform on," Demin said.
"I said that it was a religious thing and that I really couldn't take it off.”
Demin said she asked the officer if an exception could be made, and “ he told me that he would see what he can do."
But school officials and district lawyers determined that if Demin wanted to participate; she would have to comply with the rules.
"We as a school system are bound to the regulations of the Army. We cannot conduct the program unless we follow the regulations," said Jason Golden, Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel for the school district.
"We were practicing all week and the day before the parade he pulled me over to the side and said that I couldn't march," Demin recalled, speaking of her senior officer. "I wanted to break down and cry right there, but I held it in and went into stoic mode."
But Demin’s family feels she is being discriminated against, and has reached out to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is calling on the school district and the Department of Defense to change a policy that it says "effectively bars a Muslim student from participating in the class."
"It's an unwise policy,” CAIR staff attorney Gadeir Abbas said. “It's acceptable for a Jewish student to wear his yarmulke under his uniform hat. The regulations already reflect that there are religious obligations among members."
"A yarmulke can be covered by military headgear," said Lt. Col. Matthew Hackathorn, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Cadet Command who further stated that regulations don't issue a ban on religious garb unless it is exposed or covers the uniform.
Demin’s mother, Perishan Hussein, said her daughter “felt that they were dismissive toward her beliefs. It was very upsetting to her.”
"It shouldn't have been a shock to them. She wears the headscarf every day. She has been wearing it ever since they approached her to join the program."
"We think that it's un-American that anyone is not allowed to participate over religious beliefs, the mother continued. "The government has previously made rules that over time, they had to change because they didn't make sense. This rule makes no sense."
She said her daughter has been "stressed" by the whole incident and now has no intention of returning to JROTC --even if she is allowed to wear the hijab.
Demin's family and CAIR say they do not intend to sue unless they deem it necessary. CAIR sent a letter last week to the superintendent of Williamson County Schools asking that a formal apology be issued to Demin and that she be allowed to participate in the JROTC program wearing her hijab as part of her uniform.
It also mailed a letter to the Department of Defense asking for a change to the policy.
"We are reviewing the program's current policies, regulations and procedures to ensure consistent application and enforcement of uniform standards," said Lt. Col. Hackathorn. He said the senior officer in charge of Demin's class acted according to the regulations.
"The JROTC tries to instill good values in the students who participate," Hackathorn said. "Wearing the uniform demonstrates personal responsibility, attention to detail, and being part of a team."
"We're not discriminatory. She's invited to come back anytime, but it has to be in accordance with the regulations," he said.