On March 6, Sgt. Cesilia Valdovinos was at a chapel at Fort Carson, Colorado, for a suicide prevention briefing when her superior, Command Sgt. Maj. Kerstin Montoya took her aside and demanded that she remove her hijab, which, according to her faith, she is not supposed to do in public.
While some details of the incident—first reported by the Colorado Springs Independent—are in dispute, these basic facts are not.
It wasn’t the first anti-Muslim experience Valdovinos had faced in the Army. She says she’s been called a “terrorist” and made to work with pork for a time. The day after this most recent incident, on the advice of a Muslim chaplain, she emailed Mikey Weinstein, head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
“I no longer feel I can entrust my issues with anyone in the military,” she wrote.
“CSM Montoya pulled my arm and said ‘you come with me,’” she explained. “CSM Montoya told me to remove ‘that’ and pointed at my hijab.”
Valdovinos complied only after asking whether Montoya was allowed to give that order; when Montoya confirmed that she was, Valdovinos removed her hijab. “I was hesitant to take off my hijab but didn’t want to get into trouble for disrespect so I proceeded to take it off partially. [Montoya] then stated ‘no, all the way off,’ so I took off my undercap [a hat or scarf worn beneath a hijab to, ironically, contain hair] and she said turn around. I hurried to put my undercap back on and fixed my hijab. She said ‘mmhmm, and to get out of here.’”
Nothing was said about her hair.
Valdovinos was shaken. “At this point I felt embarrassed and religiously raped in a sense. My religious preference is only to unveil in front of my husband in the comfort of my own home. I feel violated, abused, and degraded of my religious beliefs.”
A statement from Fort Carson officials tells a different story.
According to sources who were present, Sgt. Valdovinos’ hair was visibly out of regulation…. At no time did the senior non-commissioned officer touch Sgt. Valdovinos. The senior NCO did ask the Soldier to remove her hijab in order to verify whether or not her hair was within regulation. Upon removing the hijab, the Soldier’s leadership discovered that Sgt. Valdovinos’ hair was completely down, which is not allowed while in uniform. The senior NCO told Sgt. Valdovinos to put her hair back in regulation and to not let it happen again.
But this version appears to be self-contradictory—if her hair were “visibly out of regulation,” then there was no need to remove her hijab to verify it. So why was it done? Why wasn’t she simply instructed to correct it? The question is especially pertinent since publicly removing her hijab is offensive to her faith.
Sgt. Valdovinos says her hair was in a bun (which is allowed). Specifically, she said, “I wrap my hair in with my undercap so of course when she made me take off my hijab [and undercap] my hair fell out of the bun it was in.”
“At this time we do not have enough fidelity on the situation to factually answer your questions,” Fort Carson officials responded when RD asked about the issues above.
In contrast to the Army’s account, Valdovinos has a supporting eyewitness. “I witnessed Sgt. Valdovinos getting grabbed by Sgt. Major, telling her to come with me, taking her to the back of chapel,” said the eyewitness. Valdovinos’ hair wasn’t visibly out of regulation, initially, but afterwards was a different story.
“I could see that Sgt. Valdovinos’ hair was coming out of her head wrap when she came back. I guess that was an indication that it had been removed,” the eyewitness said.
“It appears to be a case of pure anti-Muslim harassment,” Weinstein said. “They’re facing a formal EEO complaint. This was their chance to do the right thing. And if they don’t, among other things, we will file a formal complaint with the US Civil Rights Commission in Washington. We will take it out of DOD’s hands.”
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that removal of her hijab was prohibited by the Koran.