The battle over banning burqas and hijabs has been waged at universities outside the United States for years, but now the debate has crossed the Atlantic, with a Massachusetts institution’s newest safety measure.
As of January 1, students at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences must  not only wear identification cards but make sure they are not wearing “any head covering that obscures a student’s face," the policy reads, "for reasons of safety and security."
While some students might want to wear ski masks to cover their faces during New England’s chilly winters and others might choose face coverings for dubious reasons of fashion, the rule appears to most clearly affect Muslim women.
Security concerns have led to explicit bans on Muslim veils in France and the Netherlands. Earlier this week, an Egyptian court upheld a university’s ban  on students taking exams while wearing the hijab on the grounds that female and male students were using the veil to disguise themselves and cheat on exams. The same ground has yet to be tread in the United States, but the Massachusetts college’s first-in-the-nation ban could force the debate to begin in the land of the First Amendment.
The college’s students must abide by the ban while on campus – the college has three campuses, in Boston, Worcester and Manchester, New Hampshire -- and while off-campus for internships or clinical rotations. The only exception is for students who have a medical condition that requires them to cover their faces.
Michael Ratty, a college spokesman, said the administrators had identified two students who would be affected by the ban and asked them if they were comfortable with the rule and “discussed it with several officials within the Muslim community,” he added in a statement.
But some Muslim advocates outside the college are not comfortable with the policy and see it as the potential start of a dangerous trend in the United States.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations , a leading national civil liberties group, on Wednesday filed a third-party complaint with the Boston office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Though the rule is targeted at students, the group argues in its letter, it would have “a disproportionate impact on the religious rights of Muslim employees.”
Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s communications director, said he had found at least one Muslim faculty member who was not happy with the rule and “apparently took up the issue” to no avail. That professor did not respond to interview requests.
Hooper said that after learning about the proposed rule in December, his group asked the college to include a religious exemption in its policy but had received no official response. “It just defies logic to say that you can offer a medical exemption but you can’t offer a religious one.”
Jen’nan Ghazal Read, an associate professor of sociology at Duke University, said she is “a little shocked” by the college’s move. “Whether or not they say this is targeted toward Muslim students, it is,” she said. “What they are saying to them is we don’t want you.”
She added: “It’s a very significant shift for a U.S. institution of higher education – even a private one – and a clear signal away from acceptance."
The college’s move seems especially suspect to critics as it comes just months after the October arrest of Tarek Mehanna , a 2008 doctoral graduate and son of a professor, on charges that he had spent close to a decade conspiring to attack a shopping mall, American soldiers and two members of the executive branch of the federal government.
Ratty denied that the college’s decision to adopt the policy was at all tied to the incident, telling The Boston Globe, “unequivocally, it has nothing to do with that case.”
But conservative commentator Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum , said he “had no doubt” the policy was linked to the Mehanna case and the college’s newfound sensitivity to a terror threat when he first heard about it in early December . “Michael Ratty says no unequivocally” to the connection, Pipes said, “and of course [the college] can’t admit to it because it opens all sorts of legal issues, but that connection is there.”
Ratty said the policy was formulated after a “regular review of security measures” at the college. “The safety of our faculty, staff, and students is our paramount concern.”
Pipes doesn’t disagree. For years he has argued that Muslim women's head coverings – especially full-body burqas – present great security threats. On his blog, he keeps track of terrorist attacks, jewelry store robberies and bank heists perpetrated by women and men using the veil to disguise themselves . “I don’t really care that the college won’t come out and say they’re trying to prevent this,” he said in an interview. “It’s smart of this college and they deserve support. It’s a sensible rule for public safety, for the protection of students and faculty.”
He added that though the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy is the first college or university in the United States to institute a ban, it won’t be the last. “It’s just a matter of time before this becomes accepted fact,” he said, noting that banks and jewelry stores – even some owned by Muslims – often ban the veil along with other face-obscuring accessories like sunglasses and hats. “As these criminals enter the country and attacks or attempts take place here and around the world, we have to protect ourselves.”
At the University of Michigan at Dearborn, which has a large Muslim population, there are no plans to adopt any such rule. “I’m not aware of it being an issue or subject of concern here on campus,” said Tom Hoyt, a spokesman. “We would not restrict clothing worn for religious reasons.”
Aminah Beverly McCloud, a professor of Islamic studies at DePaul University, said “the ban makes sense in the interest of security” at the college and when students work in the field. It also seems like a good step toward professionalism, she said. “Professional ethics and a professional code of patient care seems to suggest that other people can see your face, that your patients can see you.”
In some ways, it may just come down to familiarity. Read, at Duke, is not Muslim but spends much of her time studying contemporary Muslim culture. When she first encountered a student wearing the veil “it was a little unsettling, just because you’re not used to it, and a little distracting – will I be able to hear her speak through it?”
But, as she became used to it, it no longer distracted her. “One of my smartest students wore a face veil.”