Religions differentiate themselves in many ways: beliefs about God and the afterlife, ethical and moral principles; traditions concerning marriage and family, but most importantly for our purposes today: hats! This last distinction will become increasingly relevant in January, as the upcoming Congress, the most diverse in US history, will for the first time include two Muslim women: Democrats Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Omar, with backing from likely Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, is spearheading an effort to alter a ban on headwear in order to allow Omar to wear an Islamic head covering while on the House floor.
Reacting to the fact that there is such a ban in the first place, some of you are likely surprised that a country that places such a high value on religious freedom – something the Republican Party has learned to use to its advantage in recent years – would have such a ban in place. Some of you may see this existing regulation as an example of American intolerance toward minority religions in general or Islam in particular. You’re all wrong! (well, kinda). While the ban does exist, it isn’t actually about religion at all.
The headwear ban in the US Congress was implemented in 1837 as another way to separate the US government from that of Britain, its former colonial master. In British Parliament, legislators, in the never-ending quest to blur the distinctions between politicians and pimps, generally wore hats (in fact, until 1998, British Parliament kept two borrowable top hats handy in case a legislator needed one before they took the floor to speak) so the American Congress said no to headgear (toupees are apparently politely ignored). The ban may have impacted religious individuals – currently no Jewish members of Congress wear yarmulkes when speaking – but even with the hat ban in place, Congress has effectively ignored the ban in the past in order to accommodate religious guests like Pope Francis.
Representative Omar will not even be the first person to wear Islamic headcovering on the House floor. Representative Carolyn Maloney – who is not a Muslim but is apparently a pioneer of what I will affectionately deem legislative cosplay – wore a full burka “an expensive, heavy cumbersome garment which covers the entire body” by her description, while giving a speech on the House floor about the Taliban (interestingly, Representative Bobby Rush was not given the same consideration when we wore a hoodie on the House floor to give a speech about Trayvon Martin-Rush was instead escorted off the House floor). Omar and Pelosi’s clarification would simply make explicit the exemptions that are already practically enforced. So while powdered wigs or fedoras likely won’t be seen in the chambers of Congress any time soon, hijabs and skullcaps may start to make an appearance.