WASHINGTON // Ginnnah Mohammed, a devout Muslim woman who sued a rental car company in a small claims court, was given a choice by the presiding judge: remove her niqab and testify or lose the case. "The judge said he wouldn't be able to hear me or judge my truthfulness," said Ms Mohammed, who was disputing a nearly US$3,000 (Dh11,000) charge for damage to a rental car she said was not her fault. "I felt like I had to make a choice between my religion and the court."
Ms Mohammed refused to remove her veil; Paul Paruk, a district judge in the City of Hamtramck, near Detroit, dismissed the case. Now Ms Mohammed is suing in federal court for what she claims was a violation of her religious freedom. The case has raised fundamental questions about whether certain religious rights can be guaranteed in a courtroom. Hers is one of several cases involving the niqab since the September 11 attacks.
Nabih Ayad, the lawyer representing Ms Mohammed, said the decision to dismiss his client's case creates a dangerous precedent. "If I know a lady that wears her veil in this fashion is not going to remove her veil to testify in court ? I can go assault her, I can rob her, I can do whatever I want because she can't go into court," he said. Michigan's highest court, however, disagrees. On Wednesday, in an apparent reaction to Ms Mohammed's case, the Michigan Supreme Court approved 5-2 a new rule that gives judges authority over how witnesses dress. The new rule, which applies to cases across the state, means that a judge can regulate witnesses' clothing at his or her discretion, including ordering a Muslim woman to show her face.
The rule change was backed by the Michigan Judges Association and the Michigan District Judges Association, which argue that the rule allows judges to clearly identify witnesses and better observe their demeanour. But civil liberties groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, said it opens the door to potential violations of first amendment rights. "We're disappointed," said Jessie Rossman, a staff lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan. "Unfortunately they adopted a rule that didn't include an explicit protection for religious freedom rights."
In his address to the Muslim world this month, Barack Obama, the US president, touched on the issue as he tried to assuage fears that the United States and its western allies are intolerant of Islam. "The US government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it," he said in his remarks at Cairo University. "It is important for western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit - for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear."
Mr Ayad, Ms Mohammed's lawyer, applauded the president's comments, but said Mr Obama "needs to pay more attention to what's happening in this country, and in the state of Michigan in particular". The Detroit area is home to the highest concentration of Arab-Americans. "In this country we say justice is blind," said Mr Ayad, who also serves on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. "Unfortunately, justice, in this situation, is not blind when it comes to Muslim Americans."