A young Muslim college student in Tennessee has been expelled from school simply for wearing a hijab, a civil rights organization said.
On Tuesday, Muslim Advocates and a local law firm sent a letter to the Georgia Career Institute, demanding the college refund Linde McAvoy’s tuition and amend its dress code.
According to the letter, staff had told McAvoy that her hijab didn’t adhere to the college’s dress code. McAvoy said staff members repeatedly harassed her and told her she was not allowed to wear her covering even after she explained to school’s administrators that she wore it as a part of her religious beliefs.
“It’s incredibly important for Muslim women to wear the hijab and get educated. We don’t think those things are antithetical. We don’t think that wearing the hijab is inherently unprofessional,” Nimra Azmi, a staff attorney at Muslim Advocates told HuffPost.
The school’s dress code policy does not prohibit religious head coverings; the only specified requirement is that students dressed “professionally” and wore solid black attire according to the student handbook.
McAvoy said that she still dressed professionally, wearing black slacks, black shirt and a neatly-tied black hijab.
The 21-year-old also said that the college president Joyce Meadows forcibly removed her from classes and sent her home. Meadows told McAvoy that if she wanted to continue to finish her studies at the school with the hijab – she needed to provide a note of external confirmation that she wore the hijab for religious reasons.
But McAvoy refused to provide confirmation, she said, because she believed she was adhering to the dress code, which did not state students had to present any letter.
“I was expelled in a public space. It made the environment feel very hostile. It was pretty intimidating to have to choose [between] the career I’m trying to pursue and do for the rest of my life versus the religion that I’m following and hold dear to me and want to do well in,” said McAvoy. “I definitely felt targeted.”
Meadows told HuffPost the allegations were “unfounded” in a statement and said the school’s “staff, students and graduates represent every possible cultural, racial and religious group. No one has ever been expelled from the Institute for requirements of a religion.”
She said she could not elaborate further due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act – a federal law that protects the privacy of student records.
GCI is a for-profit school. The letter alleged the school violated federal civil rights law because it receives federal funding; specifically in the form of federal loans from McAvoy and other students. Receiving those funds, the letter said, makes the school bound to Title IX, which is a civil rights law prohibits educational programs from discrimination on the basis of sex.
McAvoy was excited to jumpstart her studies at the institute that trains students in cosmetology and other areas. A year after McAvoy began studying at the school, she converted to Islam and decided to wear the hijab. She said she was nervous about becoming a hijab-wearing student. She specifically worried that some students would taunt her for new religious beliefs. But it turned out her peers didn’t give her any issues. It was the staff.
“Immediately there were problems on day one,” McAvoy told HuffPost over the phone. “I was expecting more problems maybe from the students but definitely not from the teachers. That definitely came as a shock to me.”
McAvoy’s lawyers are now seeking a full-tuition refund on her behalf and implementation of anti-discrimination training for all the staff and its owner.
“It is illegal to discriminate against Muslim women who want to wear the hijab. It is unjust to do so. Wearing the hijab isn’t somehow in opposition to receiving an education or growing your career,” said Azmi. “All women should have the opportunities regardless of how they dress themselves in accordance to their faith.”
This story has been updated with a statement from Meadows.