Laycie Tobosa spent months convincing drivers’ license officials in Hilo that she was not required to remove her traditional Muslim head scarf — or hijab — to pose for a photo for her new driver’s license, which she eventually received.
Now the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii has called on Hawaii County’s Vehicle Registration and Licensing Division to change what the ACLU calls its “unconstitutional policies, which violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
The ACLU sent similar “cautionary letters” to licensing officials in Honolulu, Maui, and Kauai counties “seeking confirmation that they do not impose similar unconstitutional policies.”
“Asking a woman to remove her head scarf is like asking her to remove her clothes and underwear,” Tobosa said today. “It’s like asking me to get undressed in public. Wearing a head scarf is to protect you as a woman, to preserve your most private spaces for those close to you. It’s very embarrassing. It’s very offensive.”
Tobosa, 33, of Hilo, owns Island Healing Massage Co. in downtown Hilo. She got her first driver’s licence at age 19 on Maui, converted to Islam in 2011 and went into the Hilo licensing division office to get her license renewed when it expired on her birthday on Jan. 27.
When Tobosa refused to follow requests to remove her hijab for her photo, she was issued only a provisional driver’s license. She then spent the next months working to convince Hawaii County licensing division officials that they were not following Homeland Security guidelines. She said county officials could provide no written policy requiring women to remove head scarfs worn for religious purposes.
The federal guidelines, posted on the Homeland Security website, state: “The REAL ID regulatory standards for the digital photograph recognize that some individuals may wear head coverings for religious or other reasons. However, such coverings should not obscure an applicant’s facial features or generate a shadow. For purposes of the photograph, the face should be visible from the hairline to the chin and forward of the ears, and be free of shadows. The REAL ID regulation does not require the exposure of the hair line or the ears.”
Tobosa finally received her license on April 18. Now she wants DMV officials across the islands to know that women are not required to remove their head scarfs just to get a driver’s license, which she needed to cash checks and get onto an airplane.
In a statement today, Hawaii County officials said: “Initially, the County followed the REAL ID requirements in place at the time regarding how an applicant’s photo should appear; the requirements at the time stated that “the face from crown to the base of the chin, and from ear-to-ear, shall be clearly visible and free of shadows. Veils, scarves or headdresses must not obscure any facial features and not generate shadow.
“The Federal Department of Homeland Security, which set forth the REAL ID laws, updated its own interpretation of the requirements regarding head coverings. The updated interpretation of the law was not immediately conveyed to the state or the county.
“As soon as the state and county became aware of the new interpretation of the law, Ms. Tobosa was immediately issued a full REAL ID compliant driver’s license on April 18, 2018,” said Naomi O’Dell, administrator for Hawaii County’s licensing division. “Since that time, we have been consistently following that interpretation.”
One woman in Hilo who applied for a driver’s license did comply with a request to remove her hijab, Tobosa said.
“She is not from Hilo, she’s a foreigner and she doesn’t know her rights,” Tobosa said. “She did what she was being told to do because she felt she had no other options.”
Imam Matiullah Joyia of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Hawaii, USA read about Tobosa’s battle with the Hilo licensing division on social media and said it represents just one of many acts of ignorance and discrimination toward Muslims in Hawaii.
“It’s the sad reality that we as Muslims have to face,” Joyia said.
His wife, Khadija Maryam, needs to renew her driver’s licence on Oahu in a few months and Joyia worries she will face the same kind of discrimination that Tobosa endured in Hilo.
“There’s no way I can imagine my wife exposing herself just for a driver’s license,” Joyia said. “At the same we are grateful for the Constitution that protects us against such policies.”