The Citadel considers allowing cadet to wear hijab

Cadets scrutinize the stance and placement of hands and feet of fourth classmen checking into the Watts Barracks during move-in day in August 2015 at The Citadel. The public military college has famously strict rules on cadet appearance, particularly for freshmen.

The Citadel has set off a heated debate as it considers making an exception to its famously strict dress code for an incoming cadet who has requested to wear a hijab, a head covering worn by some Muslim women.

“The college is reviewing the request at this time,” said Col. Brett Ashworth, vice president of communications and marketing for the public military college.

The possible change in uniform rules has raised the ire of some Citadel cadets and alumni, some of whom expressed their opposition via social media.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations will send a letter of support to The Citadel urging the school to allow the hijab, according to spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.

Hooper said it is important for The Citadel to send “a message of inclusion” at a time when Muslim-Americans face increasingly hateful rhetoric.

“Believe me, if it was a Mennonite woman seeking to wear a head covering, I don’t think you’d have this kind of opposition,” Hooper said.

Abdulrahman Muhammad, an Alabama native who graduated from The Citadel in May 2015, said the school was always accommodating to his Muslim faith. He said the cafeteria provided him with halal meal options and the campus chaplain reached out to him personally about providing transportation to services at the Central Mosque of Charleston.

In the case of the incoming cadet’s hijab request, Muhammad said it represents “a sticky situation” at a school where cadets are “indoctrinated into a proven situation that works.”

“It’s tough, but from my understanding, the school is doing their job and their due diligence to try and accommodate a need,” Muhammad said.

The Blue Book, a handbook for cadet life at The Citadel, includes two pages of rules on the subject of cadet appearance. Wrist watches must be “conservative,” freshman female cadets must keep their hair “maintained in a short style” about 3 inches in length, and “religious/medical tags may be worn if they are covered by the undershirt and not visible,” according to the latest edition. Campus religious services are offered for “Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Episcopal, Orthodox, Buddhist or Collective Protestant” students, according to the book.

Nick Pinelli, a senior cadet who is also an intern for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, set off a firestorm of comments when he shared his opinion in a lengthy Facebook post.

“This girl should be welcomed to the Corps with open arms, as should any person of any religion, race, gender, or identity,” Pinelli wrote. “That’s equality. It’s not equality to let one of those groups follow a different set of rules.”

Reached by phone, Pinelli said the hijab debate “speaks to a larger issue” at The Citadel as the school makes changes to its rules for cadets. For example, he said senior cadets are no longer allowed to make freshman cadets pick up their laundry, a common practice during his first year at the school.

Pinelli said The Citadel came under tremendous public pressure recently after photos surfaced in December of cadets wearing white hoods, an incident that sparked protests and ended with the school punishing 14 cadets.

“In order for the school to save face, they have, in the past two years specifically, changed a lot of rules,” said Pinelli, who stressed that he speaks for neither the school nor the Trump campaign. “These rules are changing quickly, and they are a lot of times overkill.”

Katie Windmueller, who said she used to work in The Citadel’s chapel and had three sons who attended in the 1990s and early 2000s, said she would never send her sons to the school today if it allowed cadets to wear hijabs.

“The Citadel stands for something, and I think it’s an abomination to even consider (allowing hijabs),” Windmueller said. “They need to adopt our ways and not their ways.”

The Citadel has traditionally had close ties to the U.S. military, and today about one-third of graduates enter the armed services. The military has changed some uniform regulations in recent years to accommodate religious practices.

The Pentagon issued a policy in 2014 stating, “The military departments will accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs,” allowing exceptions to uniform policy for Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and members of other religious groups that require beards or certain articles of clothing. This month, the Army allowed Capt. Simratpal Singh to wear a turban and beard while in uniform, in keeping with his Sikh faith.

Reach Paul Bowers at (843) 937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.