For more than 80 years, public school teachers in Oregon were forbidden to wear religious garb in the classroom. That included crosses for Christians, kippahs (or yarmulkes) for Jews, and hijabs (or headscarves) for Muslims.
Forbidden, that is, until Erica Charves and other supporters got involved.
Charves is a student at Portland State University and president of the Muslim Student Association, where she organizes events for students. “We try to create community awareness about Islam and create events for our Muslim students,” she said recently.
Last year, Charves’ group was informed by a Sikh organization in New York about the Workplace Religious Freedom Act pending in the Oregon Senate, which allowed everybody in Oregon to wear what they wanted to their jobs, including religious garb, except teachers.
Charves found this completely unconstitutional and wanted to do something about it. “A teacher shouldn’t proselytize, period, whether they’re Christian, Catholic or atheist,” she said. “All of the teachers who spoke on behalf of overturning this law said, ‘You know, I’m not a teacher because I want to teach people about Islam. I want to teach kids math,’” she said.
There are less than 3,000 Muslims in Oregon, making up about only 0.1 percent of the population. Charves said it isn’t only their culture that makes them feel like outsiders, but their faith.
“The Portland area is known for not being religious. If you look at the number of people who are atheist or agnostic, it’s a large number of people who aren’t connected to some sort of religion in the area,” she said.
Charves and her group worked with the Oregon Senate to overturn the law, which frustrated and disappointed her and many other people of faith. “Around the world, we see more places that are banning religious garb,” she said. “I mean in France, it’s not even legal to wear religious garb for a legal ID. So that means if you’re not willing to take off your religious clothing, then you can’t get a legal ID, meaning you can’t travel, you can’t get a home loan and such things like that.”
The act was passed and became law Jan. 1. Though few of Charves’ friends or family share her faith, she finds great comfort in wearing a hijab. However, she has faced challenges because of it. “I was threatened on PSU campus by a man with a knife. And I’ve had difficulty with prior employers to be able to wear my scarf,” she said.
The events of 9/11 caused her problems, too. “Right after September 11th happened, my dad did ask me to not wear my scarf because he was worried very much for my safety. We had a big disagreement over it,” she said. “So sort of out of one of those teenage moments of rebellion, I cut all my hair off and dyed it red, and I had like a quarter of an inch of like Ronald McDonald red hair.”
Charves believes her hijab makes a powerful statement and appreciates that she can wear one freely in this country. “It’s your right as an American to be able to express yourself in that way,” she said. “I love the freedom that we enjoy as Americans.”
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ASSISTANT EDITORS: Daniel Ballow, 17, Meera Patel, 18.