A Soft Fight Against Hijab Discrimination


A woman stands in the customs line at Honolulu International Airport, awaiting her turn to be processed and granted permission to enter the country. Though her demeanor exhibits an impeccable patience, it is a mere mask for the excitement she feels beneath the surface.

After spending nearly her entire life in Indonesia, Nelly Martin, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is eager to begin the next chapter of her life in the United States of America. Finally, Martin is called forward. After putting her bags in the X-ray machine and stepping through the metal detector, she is approached by a TSA agent.

“You have been randomly selected for a secondary investigation,” the agent says. “Please follow me.”

Having little choice in the matter, Martin obliges and is led into a security room. Here she is searched by a female officer before she is allowed to pass through security and officially enter the United States.

Nelly Martin is Muslim.

Her story is not rare in the United States. According to a 2011 study by the Pew Research Group, 21% of Muslim Americans report instances of discrimination when going through airport security.

Lori Saroya, executive director of the Minnesota branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), regrettably confirms this trend: “This type of incident has definitely increased in recent years.”

Saroya states that a growing number of Muslim-Americans have encountered trouble when traveling, often because they simply share a name with someone on the No-Fly List.

Saroya uses the story of a Muslim man that CAIR worked with as an example. Despite being an American citizen with no criminal record, he is confronted by police offers with guns drawn and is then who handcuffed each time he attempts to re-enter the US from another country.

This is exactly the type of incident CAIR is striving to prevent by advocating legal justice on behalf of Muslim-Americans to ensure that they receive the same treatment as their non-minority counterparts.

“The laws and rights already exist,” Saroya says. “We are just trying to make sure that they are extended to Muslim citizens as well.”

Such prejudice does not exist within official institutions alone, however. “Usually the hardest part is in the airport,” Martin says. “Customs is really bad on me. But it happens a lot in the community, too.”

Like many women of her faith, Martin wears a scarf around her head, most commonly called a hijab, as a representation of her beliefs. Unfortunately, in her experience in the United States, her hijab also doubles as a target for discrimination.

“I get that a lot,” Martin says, speaking of the prejudice she faces on a daily basis, “and I know that it is because of my attire. One time at a café, I had a barista who was so rude when she served me. She was very nice to the next customer, so I thought she was treating me differently because I was wearing a headscarf.”

Research has proven that these incidents are by no means scarce. In fact, 48 percent of Muslim-Americans report having personally experienced racial or religious discrimination according to a 2010 survey published by Gallup.

This percentage is far higher than any other religious group. The severity of inequity against Muslims should not come as much of a surprise, given that a plurality finds Islamic and American values/way of life to be incompatible. A 2011 study by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 47% of Americans believe that this is the case.

Having been born to the only minority family in her southern Iowa hometown, Saroya is no stranger to discrimination.

Citing this as a major influence on her motivation to work for CAIR, she combats this discrimination not only through legal means, but within her community as well. “The source of Islamophobia is simply misinformation,” she says. “So we try to be proactive in educating people about it.”

After seeing case after case of Muslim employees reporting workplace mistreatment, she has organized employer-training events with many major corporation in Minnesota.

Her goal is to help these companies understand Islam and demonstrate how they can accommodate the practices and beliefs of their Muslim staff.

Saroya believes there is a role that Muslims must also play to bridge the cultural divide with their fellow citizens.

“Muslims have an obligation to reach out and show their community that they are not what the media says about them,” she says. “They need to speak for themselves, be vocal, and stand up for their rights.”


American Muslims face discrimination at airports, yet, they use soft tactics to raise awareness on the issue.