Should Chilean banks force ‘no hijab’ on Muslim women customers?

Vanessa Rivera de La Fuente – WNN Opinion

Muslim artwork As Salam - Peaceful Sanctuary
This Muslim artwork is titled ‘As Salam,’ meaning ‘Peaceful Sanctuary.’ As Salam is also the name of a mosque in Santiago, Chile. Image: Sunflower Central/Flickr

(WNN) Santiago, CHILE: When 40-year-old Chilean citizen Ms. Fabiola Palominos Flores converted to Islam in 2007 she started wearing a hijab (headscarf) as part of her identity as a Muslim woman living in Chile. But at the time she didn’t know she would run into trouble. On August 2010 Palominos went into a bank to cash a personal check. According to national laws in Chile she was asked to remove her hijab before the bank could issue her cash.

But Fabiola refused to take off her headscarf. In answer to her defiance the bank clerk said asking her to remove the scarf on her head was ‘normal procedure’ for identification purposes. After tense moments and discussions Palominos finally agreed to take off her hijab. She eventuallly did receive her money, but the question of religious discrimination remains.

Sure that her rights had been violated, Palominos felt she had just cause and a clear and legal case of discrimination. She decided to present her side to the court, which was rejected. But Fabiola didn’t quit. She decided to take her case to the OAS – Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. With the support of the Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation, an organization that helps find lawyers who can represent the interests of minorities throughout the Americas, Palominos recently brought her allegation of discrimination directly against the Chilean State.

But do you feel the Commission should accept the serious allegation of this Muslim woman? Let’s check

Hiyab and the Equity on the Law

The reason why she asked to take off the veil, is not based in the fact she is a Muslim: It is for safety and security reasons. The same is asked to anyone who walks into a bank with glasses or a hat. Security is a major principle of social life which cannot be subject to particular decisions about dress of people.

It is true that, as the President of the Islamic Cultural Centre, Fuad Mussa said, there is a general ignorance among Chileans about Islam. But it’s also true the bank staff does not need to handle philosophical or religious arguments to enforce its rules. Religion is a personal choice, and in the cold world of the law the way a person dresses and the reasons for it are not ‘legally’ important.

If we accept that certain people, for whatever reason may violate safety standards that apply to everyone, most Chileans who are not Muslims could allege discrimination. Like it or not, we cannot force people to make exceptions not covered by the laws in regard to our personal choices.

Islamic laws only regulates the life of the Muslim community. These laws are not mandatory in many societies for non-Muslims. On the other hand, equality of the law and its application is set in the Islamic religion itself as a basic principle of social life. So outside of anything involving a crime, Muslims who live in multi-religious, or non-religious Muslims societies, must be flexible and facilitate the enforcement of society’s laws. People should keep in mind that faith does not mean blind imitation of tradition or a less inflexible regard to religious formalities. Faith must be part of the values.

The Right to Protect Identity

Leaving aside the internal debate within the Muslim community about whether the veil is mandatory or not, the important thing here is that Fabiola Palominos decided to use wearing the hijab as a way to build her identity as a person and disclose her religious affiliation. The central point to articulate where a good case before the OAS can be made is not to cite religious segregation, but to bring attention to the violation of the right to religious identity which can result in specific discrimination.

Identity, as we know, is a right and a personal decision. Fabiola’s hijab is an element of personal identity, a marker for identity that is as important as her name, her physical characteristics and her opinions. All are part of a special identity that belongs to only her; and the Chilean State has a constitutional duty and an ethical obligation to protect it.

Being in the world is not limited to being alive. We are not only alive but we are here in a certain way as someone expressing identity. And this is a powerful argument.

The freedoms that contribute to crafting the identity of individuals should include the: freedom of religion, human rights, freedom of thought and freedom of opinion, including respect for privacy and self-image. Everyone has the right to a personal identity, which is the core or essence of the human experience.

While we do not know what the future of this case will be, certainly here is the challenge: to get Islamic organizations in Latin America to increase their efforts in working for greater understanding and inclusion of Islam as an accepted part of social life. And also to do this by promoting dialogue and facilitating the clear expression of Muslim identity in interaction with all others.

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