Ismahan Isse, a 29-year-old Ohio woman and Somali-American Muslim police recruit, quit the Columbus Police Division in March after four months in the academy due to its policy prohibiting officers from wearing the headscarf or hijab while working.
ThoughIsse has wanted to be a police officer for years and studied criminal justice to prepare for the position, her sense of identity superseded her goal of working in law enforcement. When she dropped out of the academy, she told the department the main reason was the scarf, saying, “I want to remain myself,” according to the Columbus Dispatch.
The police division’s failure to revise its position on the hijab is surprising, given that Columbus is home to the third-largest population of Somali immigrants in North America, behind Toronto and Minneapolis. Somalis have created Columbus’s largest ethnic enclave and critics have voiced outrage over the headscarf policy. “The city hasn’t embraced or encouraged new Americans of any nationality to be a part of its police presence, and that’s disgraceful,” said Hassan Omar, head of the Somali Community Association of Ohio.
The rigid dress code appears to be at cross-purposes with the city’s broader diversity goals. In October 2014, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman created the New Americans Initiative, an office that gives immigrants access to city services. Following that, a movement to recognize the economic and social contributions of Somalis in Ohio was created by Khadra Mohamed, president and CEO of the Center for Somali Women’s Advancement. The annual recognition day for citizenship and entrepreneurship in Ohio was observed on March 8, and the contributions of diverse women are celebrated each year.
The Columbus Police Division’s stance on the head scarf also stands in sharp contrast to the accommodation made by the St. Paul Police Department in Minnesota, which hired the city’s first Somali woman officer in March last year after the department approved an option for Muslim police officers to wear a police-issued hijab.
— Attorney Simret Zeru (@SimretZeru) May 2, 2015
But according to Columbus police spokeswoman Denise Alex-Bouzounis, the refusal to allow for a headscarf in the uniform is not based on discrimination, but on the requirements of safety and “impartial appearance,” the Columbus Dispatch reported. She said that officers should look the same, and at times when they are required to wear helmets and gas masks, the headscarf could serve as an impediment. Additionally, a scarf could be used as a weapon, specifically to strangle an officer.
After reading about Isse’s case, a police recruiter in Edmonton, Canada, Staff Sgt. Mark Farnell, contacted her to express an interest in hiring her. The Edmonton police department has designed a uniform that includes a headscarf to make the option available for Muslim women officers. He told The Columbus Dispatch,“She really wanted to be a police officer, why not touch base (and) see if she is interested in coming to Canada and take a look? She’s a great potential applicant to us.”
Edmonton currently has no Somali officers and wants the police force to be more diverse and inclusive. While Isse, who has also run for Columbus city council, said that she is strongly considering Farnell’s offer, her first choice remains the Columbus police department. Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman has asked his safety officials to re-examine the policy.
The police division’s concerns can be easily addressed by modifying the color and style of headscarves, said Romin Iqbal, staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Ohio chapter.