When 29-year-old Brazilian Muslim law student Charlyane Souza went to take the bar exam in Sao Paulo on March 15, she did not expect her religion to be a problem. However, she was interrupted and interrogated several times during the exam -- because she was wearing hijab, the traditional headscarf that covers a woman's hair and neck.
After being frisked outside the testing room before she started the exam, Souza was pulled out of the exam and into a room for questioning by a female official. According to the Organization of Brazilian Lawyers (OAB), exam takers are not allowed to have their heads covered due to fears that they might use Bluetooth earpieces and have someone help them cheat. The official asked why Souza had her head covered and did not believe Souza when she said she was Muslim.
“She asked me if I really was Muslim, and if I had a way of proving it, because I could be just disguising myself as one,” Souza told Arab News.
The official allowed Souza to return to the exam, but she was later interrupted by the president of the OAB's examination commission, Rubens Tilkian, who had been called into the exam room to handle the situation. Tilkian asked Souza if she would be uncomfortable taking off her hijab for the remainder of the exam and alleged that other exam-takers were feeling “uncomfortable.”
Souza refused and, as a result, she was taken to a private room to finish the exam, but she failed it. The interruptions and change of rooms reduced Souza’s time actually taking the exam. She claims that this kept her from passing. She answered only 31 of the 80 questions correctly, when she needed to answer at least 40 questions right to pass the first phase of the exam.
Since Souza’s predicament, the OAB has begun considering whether Muslim women will be allowed to wear hijab while taking exams in the future.
“The association has been working for nearly a decade to guarantee religious freedoms, but it’s a work in progress,” Damaris Moura of the Brazilian Bar Association told Press TV. “Given our role as proponents of these rights, we deeply regret Charlyane’s case. We will continue to fight for the rights of those whose faith has specific requirements.”
Discriminatory practices against people who wear hijab are not new in Brazil. Several years ago, the city of Foz de Iguaçu banned women from wearing hijab in photos used to renew their drivers’ licenses, even though the federal government of Brazil allows Muslim women to wear hijab in photos used for passports. The law was later overturned, but some, such as Arab News writer Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, believe that anti-Islamic attitudes are only growing in Brazil as its Muslim population, currently estimated at 1.5 million, grows as well.
Legally, there may be more protection for Muslims who wear hijab in the future. While Brazil already has a law that bans discrimination based on religion, there is currently no law protecting citizens from discrimination based on religious items and dress. However, Souza’s lawyer has helped submit a bill to congress that would criminalize discrimination on the basis of religious items, and thus ensure the legal protection of Muslim women who wear hijab.
As for Souza, the law student will be allowed to retake the bar exam and will likely be uninterrupted for her hijab.