National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 3, 2003

Dialogue could have averted hijab controversy


A small Catholic high school outside Cleveland and a hoping-to-return senior have suddenly found themselves in the spotlight of what has become a major interfaith controversy. Both sides wish the media glare would go away, but judging from the now-international headlines, editorial cartoons and newspaper column-inches the episode has generated, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

It began when Amal Jamal, an incoming senior at Regina High School in South Euclid, went to school to buy textbooks Aug. 25. Amal, who is 17, has been at the all-girls’ school since her freshman year. In June, she began wearing the hijab, or Muslim headscarf, as an expression of her faith. There are different versions of what happened next, but in essence Amal and her mother reportedly told Notre Dame Sr. Maureen Burke, Regina’s principal, that the girl would be wearing the veil this year. In a phone interview with NCR, Burke said she was caught off guard by the announcement. She told Mrs. Jamal and Amal that wearing the scarf would be a violation of the school’s dress code, which specifically states: “No hats, no bandanas or head wraps are permitted.” Burke said she told the mother and daughter that she didn’t have the authority to change the policy on her own and would need some time to take it under advisement. She said she asked for 24 to 48 hours.

Amal left in tears. Her mother left upset. And the family, distressed over the publicity and reportedly hurt by what they see as the school’s insensitivity and religious intolerance, aren’t talking to the media -- or to school officials.

Burke said she feels torn. “I regret it happened so quickly that I had no time to process” what was happening, she told NCR. And she admits she needs “to learn more about Islam” and its traditions. At the same time, the veteran educator said she believes her “first responsibility is to maintain the Catholic character of the school.” While she has committed to reviewing the dress code to make allowances for religious expression -- something a Regina faculty committee is doing at NCR press time -- Burke said changes in the policy should come from dialogue and heightened understanding, not simply from the strong-arm pressure of public scrutiny.

The hijab issue aside, Regina has not been insensitive to Muslim students. The school provided a place for Muslim students to pray, and Amal’s parents were invited speakers at an Erase the Hate event at the school after 9/11. But any points for religious tolerance that achieved seems to be overshadowed by the headscarf issue.

What is unfortunate is that it never needed to happen.

Numerous other Catholic schools around the country successfully incorporate students from other faiths, including Muslims, and permit those who wish to wear a sign of their religious devotion, whether hijab for Muslim girls, or a yarmulke, the skullcap worn by devout Jewish men and boys.

In Burke’s own diocese, Fr. Joseph Hilinski, the head of the diocesan interfaith commission, sent a message to the Islamic community to reassure them that “other Catholic schools” (he specified those run by the diocese) “would welcome a young woman who wore the hijab because of her religious conviction.” He added that he “will continue to help our Catholic people realize that we esteem the religious convictions and traditions of Islam.”

Just 112 miles west of Cleveland, Burke’s congregation runs Notre Dame Academy in Toledo. Like Regina, Notre Dame has had Muslim students for years, and photos in a school promotional brochure show Muslim girls in hijab playing volleyball and in other school activities with their Christian classmates. Notre Dame Academy’s president, Sr. Mary Carol Gregory, credits the school’s Diversity Task Force, a joint effort of students and a sister-adviser, with helping the Toledo girls’ school “develop and encourage religious and ethnic awareness and balance.”

Both the Cleveland and Toledo dioceses have been leaders in Muslim-Catholic dialogue, with well-attended annual programs cosponsored by area mosques and the respective diocese. Unfortunately, what happens at the “official” level among religious leaders doesn’t always filter down to the people in the pew or on the prayer rug.

That kind of disconnect between Catholic teaching urging respect for “all that is true and holy” in other religions and the practical application of religious tolerance at the local level embarrasses Gregory. While she recognizes the fine line school administrators have to walk, a Catholic school dress code can and should be crafted in such a way that it makes allowances that respect religious diversity. Otherwise, she told NCR, “we’re contradicting ourselves.”

In the years between Vatican II’s landmark document on non-Christian religions and today, the church and three popes have repeatedly issued calls for deeper interreligious understanding, with special reference to Islam. “The church … has a high regard for the Muslims,” declared Nostra Aetate in 1965.

Acknowledging centuries of tension between Christianity and Islam, “this sacred council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding,” the document continued. “For the benefit of all, let [Catholics and Muslims] together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.”

Then as now, that’s an excellent template to apply to life in our increasingly diverse world. And to a school dress code.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 2003

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