Delaware DMV offers apology for headscarf incident

Teen told to take off hijab despite policy

by Mike Chalmers
THE NEWS JOURNAL, April 14, 2010

Getting her driver’s license should have been an exciting rite of passage for a Sussex County teenager, her mother said.

But when Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles workers told the 16-year-old girl to remove her Muslim headscarf — despite an agency policy allowing her to wear it in her license picture — the experience ended in tears and embarrassment.

“It’s a crying shame that a piece of fabric on her head could cause such an uproar,” said the mother, who asked not to be identified to avoid further public attention.

The girl eventually left the DMV with a driver’s license, she said, but the picture showed her visibly upset and crying.

DMV Director Jennifer Cohan said the agency will remind its workers of its policy on religious and cultural issues. Muslim women may wear headscarves that do not cover their faces for their photos, she said.

“We called her and apologized profusely,” Cohan said. “This could have been handled with a little more sensitivity on our part.”

The incident happened about 6 p.m. last Wednesday at the DMV office in Georgetown, typically a busy time because it is the one day each week that the office stays open until 8 p.m.

“She was very excited, naturally,” the woman said of her daughter, who has been wearing a scarf since ninth grade.

After a clerk processed her application, the girl went to the next station for her picture. There, another clerk told her to remove the scarf, which did not cover any of her face, the mother said.

“He said, ‘No, she has to take it off for national security,’ ” the mother said. “The place was jam-packed. All eyes were on my child.”

The mother protested, pointing out that she was wearing a head scarf in her own driver’s license photo. But a supervisor repeated the worker’s instructions that the girl had to remove her scarf because of a “national security policy.”

“They repeated the words ‘national security,’ and here’s this 16-year-old girl in a headscarf,” the mother said. “She was made to feel like a terrorist. It was horrible.”

As the dispute went on, another man in line said, “Send them back to Afghanistan,” all parties agreed.

The woman and her daughter are both United States citizens who were born in this country.

The supervisor refused to take the girl’s picture and called the next person in line, the mother said. The girl was crying “uncontrollably” at that point, she said.

“Since we were being ridiculed by the people in line, and he was being hostile and refusing to take her picture, we decided to go home,” she said.

They came back inside because they had already paid the fee for the girl’s license, the mother said. The clerk who had taken the girl’s paperwork and license knew the DMV’s policy on headscarves, she said, so he took the girl to the photo station for her picture.

“She was crying in the picture,” the mother said. “It’s not an acceptable picture to have on the license.”

The Pennsylvania chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations intervened after the incident.

The DMV took “prompt and appropriate action” by apologizing to the teenager and offering to retake the picture, said Moein Khawaja, civil rights director for the chapter.

“We’re not looking for a change in policy,” Khawaja said. “For them it was an issue of having their staff trained properly.”

The headscarf is an expression of modesty for Muslim women, Khawaja said. The scarves and other aspects of Muslim women’s dress, referred to as “hijab,” have prompted many complaints nationwide involving people who do not understand them, he said.

“It’s a new thing for a lot of people, and they’re not quite sure how to approach it,” he said.

Issues of prayer, fasting and other cultural practices have raised concerns, too.

In 2004, parents of several Muslim students at Bancroft Intermediate School in Wilmington complained that the children had to go to the cafeteria during lunch, even though it was the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims fast during daylight hours. In response, the district allowed the students to go to a separate room to pray during lunch.

The recent incident at the DMV has left the woman and her daughter shaken.

“To see your child singled out like that for something that’s very sacred to her, something of her own choosing, something I’m very proud of her for, it’s very troubling,” the mother said.

She said she will take her daughter back for another driver’s license picture soon — at the DMV office in Dover.

“I don’t want to subject her to going back to the Georgetown DMV,” she said.