When Georgia’s anti-mask laws were scrawled into state code some 60 years ago, supportive legislators sought to curb anonymous violence by hooded Ku Klux Klansmen. But first-year Georgia State student Nabila Khan never guessed such a law would bring into question her niqab, a veil worn by some Muslim women which covers everything but the eyes.
On Aug. 25, during Khan’s first week of college, one of her teachers held her after class to request she not conceal her face. Khan refused, claiming such an ask violated her right to freely exercise her religious beliefs.
“I wear it to work. I wear it to school,” she told The Signal about her niqab. “Many people have this misconception that, as Muslim women, we’re oppressed or forced to wear it. For me, it’s a choice. My parents never forced me to wear it.”
Khan said she feels proud and “protected” when wearing her niqab. “This is the only way I can practice my religion the way I believe it’s meant to be practiced,” she said.
However, Georgia’s anti-mask law states any “device which conceals the identity of the wearer” is only allowed when used for physical protection or on certain holidays. Georgia, unlike some states such as Louisiana and Minnesota, has yet to amend that code to allow for religion-related exemptions.
The teacher, who will remain unnamed in this article at Khan’s request, noted on the class syllabus that students should not “obscure the face” in class. The teacher also gave Khan a copy of the state law when she declined the request to take off her niqab.
But when Khan told the teacher she was reaching out to school officials and a lawyer, her teacher backpedaled, deferring the official decision to Georgia State’s administration.
University spokeswoman Andrea Jones told The Signal, “The university is public property, and we permit face veils as religious accommodation. There is nothing in the code of conduct that specifically addresses face covering,” she said. Sonja Roberts, a spokeswoman for the University System of Georgia, backed the school’s stance.
Khan, who said the teacher’s approach was “very respectful,” said she harbors no ill will and believes the teacher is merely a stickler for the rules.
“[My teacher] seems like a rule follower,” she said. “But [Georgia code] definitely can’t supersede the First Amendment. From the beginning, when I spoke to my lawyer, I said I didn’t want to take any action because my religion teaches us to be forgiving and understanding.”
Edward Mitchell, chapter president for Georgia’s Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said he’s glad that university officials quickly directed the teacher to allow the niqab, but he understands that “here in Georgia, [a niqab] can make for a very unusual sight.”
“In [American] culture, we’re so accustomed to seeing women with barely any clothes on, not women covered up to the point where their faces are covered,” he said. “Women have the right to wear whatever they want to wear or not wear whatever they want to wear, and we should preserve their constitutional right to do so, whether we like it or not.”
Mitchell, much like Khan, said he doesn’t blame the teacher for being “confused,” and noted there are plenty of archaic Georgia laws that are forgotten and unenforced — fornication is still technically illegal in the eyes of the state, he said.
Many of such laws have long been superseded by newer statutes, such as the federal and state constitutions’ freedom of religion clauses.
“Although the Georgia law does seem to be outdated, no one seems to be improperly enforcing that law against people of faith,” he said. “As long as law enforcement and government agencies do not violate the freedom of religion by enforcing the anti-mask law against religious women, I see no need for change in the law.”
Cue state Sen. Vincent Fort, a legislator representing Atlanta. “I’m going to call the legal counsel about it,” he told The Signal.
“I remember the effort to pass an exemption,” he said, citing fizzled-out legislation from 2000 which aimed to amend the anti-mask laws to allow for religious exceptions. “It’s a reasonable exemption that ought then be made.”
Fort also said he thinks it’s “ironic” that legislation used to combat a hate group, the KKK, could be interpreted to disallow freedom of expression.
“It seems ironic that a bill or a law passed to restrict the illegal activity of a group who has its core beliefs in hatred toward diversity would be used to restrict the religious freedom of people who are expressing [their constitutional rights],” he said. (A handful of people were arrested for mask-related charges during a white supremacist rally at Stone Mountain in April, according to Creative Loafing.)
State Sen. Josh McKoon, the Republican from Columbus whose “Religious Freedom” bills sparked statewide controversy over the balance of religious liberty and discrimination, said he believes Georgia’s anti-mask laws should be “subjected to a strict scrutiny standard of review.”
“The government must demonstrate a compelling state interest and show the policy at issue is the least restrictive means of achieving that state interest when challenged on a free exercise basis,” he told The Signal, adding that his “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act” from last year could have worked in Khan’s favor, were it passed.
“My bill, Senate Bill 129, would have mandated a heightened standard of review in the case you mentioned, and while I cannot state with certainty the student would have prevailed, she would have been given stronger legal ground upon which to make a challenge,” he said.
Still, Mitchell said he believes, lest anti-mask laws are exploited for discriminatory reasons, no amendments need written to help cases like Khan’s. He also said other religious sects also require certain traditional garb be worn.
“Most Muslim women, like with Catholic nuns and Orthodox Jewish women, believe in wearing a hair scarf as a duty to God,” he said. “The niqab, a face veil, is something a very small minority of Muslim women wear for religious reasons. It’s so rare that I don’t think it’s really a [legal] issue.”
But Mitchell said he does understand the potential for political blowback, should legislators attempt to rework state code to make explicit religious exemptions.
“I suspect any attempt to change the law could spark outrage from anti-Muslim activists, but as long as the current law is not wrongly applied to people of faith, I don’t see any need for change,” he said.
And Khan has no intention of suppressing her religious expression. She said her parents well-prepared her for potential cultural friction. “They told me society is pretty hard right now, and I’m going to deal with things like I’ve dealt with in college,” she said.
In a statement sent to The Signal, Georgia State’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) said that, due to recent national discourse regarding civil rights and government accountability, people are calling for more transparency across the board.
“In the wake of hysteria, it seems that security and the desire for transparency is at an all time high,” the statement said. “However, at what cost does this increased desire for transparency leave our freedom of choice in the way we dress? We stand with all women and their choice to dress how they please without the scrutiny of others imposing any form of ‘societal norms.’”