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The Olympic Fencer Asked To Remove Her Hijab At SXSW Is About More Than Intolerance

The festival apologized, but the issue isn’t just racial insensitivity.

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(Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

Ibtihaj Muhammad is poised to be one of the breakout stars of the 2016 summer Olympics. She’s the first Muslim woman to compete for the U.S. in fencing, and the three-time Team USA champion is likely to do pretty well. But the headlines about her coming out of SXSW, where she spoke on Saturday as part of the panel on The New Church: Sport as Currency of American Life, aren’t about her greatness as an athlete. Rather, they’re about an embarrassing blemish on the festival, after Muhammad tweeted about her experience going through the registration process.

All SXSW attendees are photographed for badges—badges are expensive, and so maintaining badge security is important to the festival—and if you try to get your photo taken wearing a hat, the volunteer who runs that part of the process will ask you to remove it. That policy, SXSW explained in a statement, doesn’t apply to religious head coverings:

It is not our policy that a hijab or any religious head covering be removed in order to pick up a SXSW badge. This was one volunteer who made an insensitive request and that person has been removed for the duration of the event. We are embarrassed by this and have apologized to Ibtihaj in person, and sincerely regret this incident.

There’s no doubt that SXSW regrets the incident, or that the organization is sincere in its embarrassment and apology—but the problem isn’t just racial insensitivity, it’s the fact that SXSW is a massive organization that reaches people around the world, and the first point of contact that many attendees have with the festival in person is an unpaid volunteer whose training process was likely brief and far from exhaustive.

The person who told Muhammad to remove her head covering may have been motivated by personal feelings toward Muslims, but it’s also more than plausible that it was someone whose short training process didn’t address religious head coverings at all, and was limited to “make sure they take their hats off.” In other words, as much as what happened to Muhammad was about race, cultural insensitivity, and intolerance—and the fact that a person manning a booth at SXSW didn’t immediately recognize how inappropriate it is to tell a Muslim woman to remove her hijab for a photo—it’s also about SXSW’s majority-volunteer workforce, and the problems that crop up when running on that business model.

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  • Asher B. Garber

    I’m not making it up. The first thing I thought of was the hat rule.

    Erring on the side of tolerance goes all ways.

    • Justin Mayes

      If I’m reading this correctly, you are agreeing that the volunteer was in the wrong?

      • Asher B. Garber

        No. I was taking the tone of the tweet to make a point about how tolerance is the best guide to dealing with someone who may not know the personal connection to a hijab. In other words, her tweet was annoying.

        • Justin Mayes

          Gotcha. I understand where you were coming from and completely agree.

  • OldBlindBob

    Your analysis is mostly correct. What made this international news isn’t the poor volunteer or Muhammad’s tweet, but that some journalist with an agenda (all Americans are stupid and hate Muslims) decided that serving up click-bait was more important than journalistic perspective. This is another non-issue made into an international incident for no reason at all.

  • jmcsweeney

    Oh my god!!!! She was asked to take off a head scarf by a volunteer!!!!!! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!

    • José

      I reckon a lot of folks would agree that a minor infringement of someone’s beliefs regarding personal decency is a small price to pay in the interest of public safety. Of course these same folks scream bloody murder at the thought of being patted down by a TSA agent or having to submit to a 3D image body scan at the airport. And just imagine what they would do if the deputy decided to strip search their wife or daughter!

      Yeah, JMc, there’s a lot of hypocrites out there.

      • jmcsweeney

        I just want a transcript of the entire interaction.

        Volunteer – Can you please take off the scarf for the picture.
        IM- No its a religious head covering.
        Volunteer – Oh ok. (takes picture) Next.

  • rakohlin

    You are 100% correct that it is about more than religious intolerance! In society now, if a photographer or baker CHOOSES to not participate in activities because of THEIR religious beliefs, “oh my God, how DARE they”. However, if it is suggested that a covering be removed for a photograph for the safety of all, the person that even suggested it is fired. WHERE’S THE CONSISTENCY !!

  • txprisoner

    Islam is not a race. It’s not a race. lt’s an ideology. There’s no racial insensitivity here.

  • wessexmom

    Mr. Solomon has inadvertently made slightly insensitive comments at times in his posts and thus has no right to expect absolute perfection from others, especially a volunteer who seems to have made a mistake due more to concrete thinking than prejudice.
    I’m aggrieved by Solomon’s support for the grievance industry.