SXSW must educate its volunteers on religious sensitivity

Khadija Saifullah

SXSW is renowned for being the center of creating change through inviting some of the nation’s top innovators and thinkers. The film festival thrives and expands every year because of its community-based approach and focus on diverse groups. SXSW organizers said they believe that the most interesting sessions are the ones that encourage a variety of perspectives. Based on this, organizers focus on inviting speakers from various backgrounds.

However, this reputation so embedded in the forum was tarnished when U.S. Olympian and SXSW speaker Ibtihaj Mohammed was asked to remove her headscarf for her ID photo during registration at SXSW.

Unfortunately, this type of discrimination is far from isolated. Just last month, there were two incidents involving airport security asking two Sikh men, Youtuber Jasmeet Singh (JusReign) and actor Waris Ahluwalia, to remove their turbans. Mohammed’s encounter with the SXSW volunteer is just another example of the typical narrative of people in charge not being educated about how to react to others’ religious practices.

It may be difficult for those who don’t wear extra religious clothing to understand its significance. But, to both Muslim women and Sikh men, their respective head-dresses are an integral part of their appearance and represent much more than just a cloth on their heads.

The turban and headscarf both represent their devotion to their respective religions. A turban is of huge cultural importance for Sikhs and represents dignity and courage, while a hijab, or headscarf, represents modesty, not only in appearance but in the way a Muslim woman speaks and carries herself.

The organizers apologized profusely and confirmed that the volunteer’s way of dealing with Mohammed’s ID photo and registration was inappropriate and not within SXSW’s registration policy.

“It is not our policy that a hijab or any religious head covering be removed in order to pick up a SXSW badge,” organizers said in a statement to the Chicago Tribune. “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.”

The aforementioned incidents gained publicity because Mohammed, JusReign and Ahluwalia all are famous.  This type of incident may happen a lot more often than expected, but doesn’t gain as much publicity because most people lack a huge fanbase.

The lack of religious education present in our country, which was founded to embrace the very principles of diversity, is appalling.

No one should forfeit their religious beliefs for the sake of an ID photo. Not only was this embarrassing on the SXSW’s organizers end, but it was also embarrassing to the country.

Mohammed represents America as an Olympian but ended up being stopped by registration volunteers just because she looks different than others. Olympian or not, Muslim women and people of faith who dress differently because of their religion should not have to deal with the lack of religious education. They should be treated like any other person in the registration line. Volunteers at forums such as SXSW and authorities should undergo mandatory training to be educated about diversity and what faith means to different people around the world.

Saifullah is a neuroscience sophomore from Richardson. Follow her on Twitter @coolstorysunao.