Muslim Student Asked to 'Prove' Her Religion Before Taking School Photo

One Hampton University student says she was surprised when an ordinary school task turned into an "embarrassing" nightmare. Melonna Clarke, 26, a senior dressed in a hijab, a headscarf that many Muslim women wear, waited in line to get her student ID during the first week of classes last month. When she reached the front of the line, the receptionist asked her to step aside. “She said I couldn't get my photo taken because I was wearing my head scarf,” Clarke told Yahoo Shine.

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In fact, the only way Clarke could be photographed was if she removed the scarf or provided proof that she was a Muslim. “My reaction was, ‘Are you serious?’” said Clarke. “It was ridiculous, especially because Hampton is a multicultural university. It’s hard enough to walk out of my house every day to face prejudice.”

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The school did not return Yahoo Shine’s calls for comment. However, according to the university’s dress code, students who want to wear religious or cultural clothing and headgear must make a written request and go through a review process. "The school has a good diversity policy in place because it has made exceptions to its dress code for people of different faiths," says sociologist Ruth C. White, Clinical associate professor, school of social work, at the University of Southern California. "And if they make exceptions, it's fair and reasonable to ask for documentation. Although it may seem discriminatory, it isn't, because the policy could have outright banned headdress altogether."

Clarke converted from Christianity to Islam when she was 21 years old but she has only recently become comfortable wearing the headscarf on campus. And because her ID photo has to match her everyday attire, she was required to take a new photo. “It was embarrassing to be refused in the line because of my beliefs, but I began the approval process," she says. "In the meantime, I could attend classes but I couldn't enter the library or any other campus locations that required an ID."

So Clarke went to her masjid (place of worship) where she received a letter stating that she was a practicing Muslim and wore the hijab for religious reasons. Then, she delivered the letter to her chaplain who reviewed it and wrote her own letter authorizing Clarke to wear the hijab. The next day, she visited student affairs for final approval. “The woman there told me that the process I had to undergo was excessive and she expedited my case,” says Clarke.

Five days later, Clarke returned to get her photo taken. “When I got there, the same receptionist actually asked me why I was there,” says Clarke. “I reminded her that she had told me to get approval.” 

Now, Clarke carries her approval papers in her bag. “If I lost my ID or were questioned for any reason, I want them with me as proof that I’m a student,” she says. "I have one friend who refused to get permission to wear her headscarf and although she can attend class, she can't participate in campus parties, use the gym, or the library." 

However, the experience has triggered an outpouring of support from her peers. “People are grateful that I'm speaking out against the university’s policies," she says. "People shouldn't have to hide who they are."

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