An officer and a hijab

A British police department issues headscarves to female cops, and Hamas orders women lawyers to wear them in court

By Judy Berman
Published July 28, 2009 5:29PM (UTC)
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Female police officers in Britain's Avon and Somerset Constabulatory are getting a new look. No, they're not sporting new uniforms designed by "Project Runway" contestants or getting makeovers on the original (and superior) U.K. version of "What Not to Wear." These cops are being outfitted with ... uniform hijabs.

The headscarves bear the name and logo of the West Country police force and are intended to be worn when officers enter a place of worship. Although they were designed in collaboration with two Muslim groups, the Aklima Initiative and the Mosque Initiative, a police spokeswoman told the London Times that hijabs are "multi-faith." "They are designed to be used in any place of worship and can be used to cover the head or the shoulders," she told the paper. "For example, plain clothes officers could use them to cover their shoulders in a Catholic Church, or they can be used to cover the head in synagogues."

So far, only 15 women officers have received headscarves, and London's Met Police has expressed doubts that it would issue them to all of the 15,000 women on its force. But I still have to wonder what the larger implications of such a decision might be. While I applaud the police department's efforts at cultural sensitivity, the article doesn't mention whether the women who receive a hijab will be required to wear it when they enter a mosque. There is a fine line between supporting others' right to choose to wear the headscarf and being forced or pressured to wear it yourself. Considering the hijab's connotations -- not just piety but modesty and, depending on who you ask, obedience -- female police officers may feel that the garment undermines their authority. If this decision is only about showing respect in a sacred place, well... I've never seen male officers don yarmulkes to enter a synagogue. So if the women of West Country want to wear the hijab when they enter religious buildings, that's great. I just hope they'll be allowed to choose.

The latest news from Gaza brings a reminder of why this kind of choice is so important. Despite promising, after gaining control of the government in 2007, to avoid imposing Islamic law, Hamas has begun a "virtue campaign." The program includes a "list of do's and don'ts that feature on posters and in mosque sermons. It also calls for gender separation at wedding parties and tells teens to shun pop music with suggestive lyrics." Although officials insist that the campaign is "voluntary," the Associated Press reports that "the rules are vague and there are reports of alleged offenders being beaten and teachers being told to pressure girls to wear head scarves." Meanwhile, this month Gaza's supreme court judge ordered women lawyers to "wear head scarves and dark robes or be barred from courtrooms when their work resumes Sept. 1." Because, you know, we can't trust women with J.D.'s to pick out their own clothing.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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