Last week, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police approved a new policy allowing their officers to wear hijabs, the headscarf for Muslim women, while on duty. The change for the iconic mounties was made to “reflect the diversity in our communities” and encourage more Muslim women to join the force, a spokesperson said.
South of the Canadian border, American police departments are divided on whether to allow female Muslim officers to wear hijabs. Of the 25 largest police departments in the country, seven allow officers to wear the headscarf while on duty, according to Fusion’s reporting. Six others do not allow it, while the rest either have no clear policy in place or did not respond to a request for their policy.
The police departments of New York City and Washington, D.C. both have employed officers who wear hijabs, spokespeople told me. In addition, spokespeople for the police departments of Baltimore, Memphis, San Francisco, Atlanta and Charlotte said their officers would not be prohibited from wearing a hijab under current policy.
"We're in the business of defending peoples' freedom and liberty," said Lt. David Robinson, a spokesperson for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. "We would not infringe on officers' beliefs."
Meanwhile, officers in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, Las Vegas, San Antonio and Columbus, Ohio are not allowed to wear hijabs on duty.
Most major American police departments are somewhere in the middle. In many cities, the issue simply hasn’t come up, or officers would need to get special approval to wear a hijab as part of their uniform. In Chicago, the department’s 28-page uniform policy includes sections on the length of officers’ fingernails and which pins they can wear but makes no mention of hijabs or religious articles of clothing. Officers requesting religious accommodations are handled on a case-by-case basis. The Honolulu Police Department policy allows officers to wear floral leis “when part of an official ceremony or function,” but doesn’t have any reference to religious headwear.
As scrutiny has grown in the past few years over the lack of diversity in many U.S. police departments, Muslim community advocates say allowing the hijab is an important step toward inclusion.
“I think the general trend is toward acceptance of the hijab by law enforcement,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “That's just a natural trend as they seek to make a more diverse force. If you don’t allow it, you're excluding Muslim women who seek to practice their faith.”
The departments that ban the hijab for officers say they do so either for the officer’s safety—out of concern that a hijab could be grabbed during a struggle—or out of a desire for conformity in uniforms.
Steve McNulty, a spokesperson for the Boston Police Department, said they had no policy on the hijab as no officer has requested to wear one. “We don’t know” what the answer would be, he said. “It wouldn’t be a matter of us saying no to it because we have an issue with it, it could just be a safety issue… If someone grabbed the headwear and could the officer pull away, that’s the only thing we can think of.”
The departments that allow the hijab say they haven’t had any issues with safety. In Saint Paul, Minn., officers can wear a hijab that is specially modified to have metal clasps that allow it to come off in a struggle. (The first officer to wear a hijab in Saint Paul, Kadra Mohamed, is pictured above.) The Pentagon allows soldiers to wear the hijab as part of their uniform.
There is legal backing for departments to ban the hijab for officers. A female Muslim police officer in Philadelphia sued her department for discrimination in 2005 after she was disciplined for wearing a hijab to work, but a federal judge ruled against her and the decision was upheld on appeal. More recently, the Columbus police department ran into controversy when it prohibited a police recruit from wearing the hijab last year.
In July, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission determined that the policy was not discriminatory because it was based on “uniformity, safety, and neutrality” and did not allow non-Muslim officers to wear head coverings.
There’s also been controversy over police departments banning officers from wearing long beards, which some Muslim men view as part of their faith. After the NYPD suspended a Muslim officer for wearing too long a beard earlier this summer, his lawsuit against the department led to an emergency hearing in his favor and he was quickly reinstated.
The past week has seen major victories for hijab-wearing officers around the world: In addition to the Canadian announcement on Wednesday, new policies approved over the last few days in Scotland and Turkey allow officers to wear the headscarf as part of their uniform.
Hooper, the spokesperson for CAIR, said that departments that didn't allow hijab-wearing officers wouldn't be as effective in serving Muslim communities.
“You can make a standard hijab, you can have a logo on it or whatever you want,” he said. “It's just something that is needed if you want to have a diverse force.”
Updated with a new response from the Charlotte police department.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.