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Muslim woman sues Florida over drivers license

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      Muslim woman sues state over drivers license

      By Pedro Ruz Gutierrez and Amy Rippel | [Orlando] Sentinel Staff
      Posted January 30, 2002

      WINTER PARK -- A 34-year-old woman is suing the state for suspending
      her Florida drivers license after she refused to have her photo taken
      without an Islamic veil.

      Sultaana Freeman, a former evangelist preacher who converted to Islam
      about five years ago and wears the traditional niqab, says her
      religion doesn't allow her to show her face to strangers.

      She filed suit earlier this month asking an Orange County judge to
      review her case.

      "I don't show my face to strangers or unrelated males," Freeman said
      in an interview Tuesday at the office of her American Civil Liberties
      Union attorney. Only her emerald-green eyes and mascara showed through
      her veil.

      The niqab is different from a hijab, or partial head covering, which
      doesn't hide the face and which some Muslim women wear for their
      drivers license photos.

      Freeman, who is on an apparent collision course with the state, is
      bracing for a possible showdown on the fundamental freedoms of the
      U.S. Constitution.

      "Florida law requires a full facial view of a person on their drivers
      license photo," said Robert Sanchez, a spokesman for the Department of
      Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. "We have no choice but to enforce

      Florida law says license applicants shall be issued "a color
      photographic or digital imaged drivers license bearing a full-face

      ACLU lawyer Howard Marks argues that the law is vague. "I don't think
      the state statutes mandate a photograph," he said.

      Marks said he also will cling to a state law on religious freedom that
      states the "government shall not substantially burden a person's
      exercise of religion. "

      Barry University Professor Robert Whorf said the state is probably
      within its right to ask for a full-facial photograph. "It makes common
      sense if the state of Florida were discriminating against her because
      of her religion; that would more likely be unconstitutional," he said.
      "If the state of Florida's rationale for insisting the veil not cover
      the face is for law-enforcement purposes that apply to everyone, then
      clearly the state of Florida is not discriminating against anyone for
      religious reasons."

      To husband Abdul-Malik, also known as Mark Freeman, the state's action
      is an infringement on his and his wife's rights.

      "It's a reflection of Sept. 11," said Abdul-Malik, 40, a 1980
      Edgewater High School graduate and 1984 Florida State University

      The Freemans said they only want recognition that their interpretation
      of Islam requires women to cover their faces.

      Sultaana Freeman said she never had trouble in Illinois, where she
      worked as a civil engineer with the state's utilities company. That
      state, without objection, issued her license with a photo that showed
      only her eyes.

      Her Florida license was issued with her face covered last February,
      but the state demanded a new photo without her veil in November. State
      record checks began after Sept. 11.

      Altaf Ali, executive director of the Florida chapter of the Council on
      American-Islamic Relations, said he knows of three other times Muslim
      women were refused Florida drivers licenses because of their
      headdresses. "I'm sure there's a lot more that's happening and not
      getting reported," he said.

      Ali is asking the state to clarify its policy on religiously mandated
      clothes, and he wants the state to train employees about Muslim needs.

      Yasmin Khan, 39, of West Palm Beachsaid she tangled with motor-vehicle
      officials when she was refused a drivers license in mid-December.
      Khan, a native of Trinidad and a Muslim, said she pulled her headdress

      back to her hairline -- as far as her religious beliefs would allow --
      for the Dec. 17 photo but was told she needed to remove it completely.
      When she refused, she was denied a drivers license, she said.

      "I decided to call anybody and everybody because I needed my license.
      I have kids, and I need to leave my home," she said.

      Two days later, after getting help from local politicians, Khan was
      photographed with her hijab pulled back for her new drivers license.

      In Daytona Beach earlier this month, Najat Tamim-Muhammad, 41, was
      refused a Florida identification card because she declined to remove
      her hijab.

      Two years ago, Tamim-Muhammad, a native of Morocco, removed her
      headdress for the ID photo, but her husband said she did it only
      because she spoke no English and was unsure of her legal rights.

      Idris Muhammad, her husband, said they plan to go back to the office
      to explain to a supervisor why she cannot remove the hijab. They hope
      to have the photo taken at that time.

      "We understand the fear that comes with dealing with people you don't
      know or understand," he said. "In my opinion, it violates our equal
      rights under the law. Most people, when you sit down and explain why
      the women wear the hijab and the seriousness of not having it on,

      Amy C. Rippel can be reached at arippel@... or
      407-420-5736. Pedro Ruz Gutierrez can be reached at
      pruz@... or 407-420-5620.

      Copyright =A9 2002, Orlando Sentinel
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