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The Olympic Fencer Asked To Remove Her Hijab At SXSW Is About More Than Intolerance



The Olympic Fencer Asked To Remove Her Hijab At SXSW Is About More Than Intolerance

Ibtihaj Muhammad at SXSW: Unveiling a Cultural Incident

Ibtihaj Muhammad is poised to be one of the breakout stars of the 2016 summer Olympics. She’s the first Muslim woman to compete for the U.S. in fencing, and the three-time Team USA champion is likely to do pretty well. But the headlines about her coming out of SXSW, where she spoke on Saturday as part of the panel on The New Church: Sport as Currency of American Life, aren’t about her greatness as an athlete. Rather, they’re about an embarrassing blemish on the festival, after Muhammad tweeted about her experience going through the registration process.
All SXSW attendees are photographed for badges—badges are expensive, and so maintaining badge security is important to the festival—and if you try to get your photo taken wearing a hat, the volunteer who runs that part of the process will ask you to remove it. That policy, South by Southwest explained in a statement, doesn’t apply to religious head coverings:
It is not our policy that a hijab or any religious head covering be removed in order to pick up a SXSW badge. 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.
There’s no doubt that SXSW regrets the incident, or that the organization is sincere in its embarrassment and apology—but the problem isn’t just racial insensitivity, it’s the fact that SXSW is a massive organization that reaches people around the world, and the first point of contact that many attendees have with the festival in person is an unpaid volunteer whose training process was likely brief and far from exhaustive.
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The person who told Muhammad to remove her head covering may have been motivated by personal feelings toward Muslims, but it’s also more than plausible that it was someone whose short training process didn’t address religious head coverings at all, and was limited to “make sure they take their hats off.” In other words, as much as what happened to Muhammad was about race, cultural insensitivity, and intolerance—and the fact that a person manning a booth at South by Southwest didn’t immediately recognize how inappropriate it is to tell a Muslim woman to remove her hijab for a photo—it’s also about SXSW’s majority-volunteer workforce, and the problems that crop up when running on that business model.
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