Muslim soldier says command sergeant major forced her to remove hijab: ‘I feel violated'

Sgt. Cesilia Valdovinos alleges she was forced to remove her military-authorized hijab by a senior noncommissioned officer. (Credit: Military Religious Freedom Foundation)

A Muslim soldier who filed a complaint alleging that her religious freedom was violated when she was forced to remove her hijab now intends to file a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Army.

“I want to let people know that’s it’s not a bad thing to stand up for yourself when you’re getting mistreated,” Sgt. Cesilia Valdovinos, 26, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. 

She alleges that her troubles began in June 2018, when her brigade commander, Col. David Zinn, granted her approval to wear a hijab with her uniform; from that time forward, she claims, her hijab triggered “extremely hateful” behavior towards her, including repeated vitriol and harassment.

I got called a ‘terrorist.’ I got called ‘ISIS.’ I hear comments that I’m the reason why 9/11 happened,” says Valdovinos, who converted to Islam in March 2016. “There’s a lot of anger and animosity.” She claims that her breaking point came while she was attending a suicide-prevention briefing with the 704th Brigade Support Battalion at a chapel in Ft. Carson, Colo. That, she says, is when her command sergeant major allegedly grabbed her arm, pulled her out of rank and forced her to remove her hijab in front of her colleagues.

I felt embarrassed and religiously raped in a sense,” Valdovinos wrote in an email to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), an advocacy organization that is representing her. “My religious preference is only to unveil in front of my husband in the comfort of my own home.”

That incident pushed her to file an official complaint with the Military Equal Opportunity Office (MEO) on March 7 (with the MRFF’s assistance), in which she alleges a series of troubling incidents — including being called a “terrorist” by a fellow soldier and seeing no action taken when she informed his commander; being removed from her assignment as “culinary arts specialist” at a dining facility because of her “religious preference to not handle pork”; and being referred to by her sergeant as “the girl with the hood.”

Although her MEO complaint was found to be “unsubstantiated,” Valdovinos now intends to file a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Army for violating her First Amendment rights.

While the senior noncommissioned officer told the Army Times that Valdovinos was wearing her hair out of regulations underneath the hijab, Valdovinos maintains that she was not asked about her hair, and believes it would have been impossible to see her it underneath the opaque garb.

An illustration of a military-authorized hijab obtained from Army Direction 2017-13 (Photo: U.S. Army)

A commander’s inquiry into Valdovinos’ allegations “concluded that the senior non-commissioned officer acted appropriately by enforcing the proper wear of the hijab, in compliance with Army Regulations,” according to a statement from her brigade officer, Col. Zinn, and obtained by Yahoo Lifestyle. 

Further, it states, “Our leaders are committed to supporting Soldiers’ freedom of religious expression. I have and will continue to, take all reports of Soldiers disrespecting religious beliefs, observances, or traditions very seriously. We value diversity within our ranks and will continue to embrace our differences, which make us a stronger more well-rounded team of cohesive, highly-trained Soldiers prepared to answer our Nation’s call anytime, anywhere.”

The Military Equal Employment Office did not immediately respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment.

Shortly after the decision was made, Valdovinos says she was demoted from sergeant to specialist, and that it will reduce her pay by approximately $1,300 a month. She says the decision has also taken a mental toll, as she and her 7-year-old daughter have become the target of increased harassment after her story went public.

“I was getting messages on Facebook from people that I didn’t even know, that if they ever see me they would kill me, and threatened me with acid attacks,'” Valdovinos says, adding that she’s been told to “go back to where she came from,” despite being from Lodi, Calif. 

The MRFF now intends to file a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Army on behalf of Valdovinos, citing violations to her civil rights in what it views as “blatant Islamophobic harassment, bigotry and prejudice of the worst type.

“This serious attempt to marginalize, dehumanize, trivialize the religious faith of a member in standing. We will not let this stand,” Mikey Weinstein, a former U.S. Air Force officer and founder of MRFF, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Her level of heroism is no less than that of Rosa Parks when she refused to move to the back of the bus. It takes a tremendous amount of personal courage, integrity and character to stand up to anyone in the U.S. military.”

The MRFF hopes to enlist the help of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress, who helped lift a 181-year ban on head coverings on the House floor. Omar has yet to respond to their requests.

In spite of the alleged discrimination, Valdovinos says she plans on having a long career in the military, inspired by her grandfather, a veteran of the Vietnam War.

“He was very passionate about what he did and I just wanted to show my family that both male and female can do what we need to do and serve in this country,” she says, adding that she hopes to send a message to her fellow active-duty Muslims that “it’s okay to stand up for what you believe.”

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