A hijab is the scarf that religiously observant Muslim women wear to cover their hair and part of their neck.
The controversy took off in St. Mary's County, Md., where Kenza Shelley, a 54-year-old day care provider, was asked to step out of the teller line at a Navy Federal Credit Union branch to conduct her transaction in a back room after she had been properly identified, according to an account in The Washington Post.
Shelley complained about the two incidents where she was asked to step out of the teller line to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a nonprofit organization that advocates to protect the civil rights of Islamic Americans.
The controversy surrounding the incident grew until the $36 billion credit union, which is based in Vienna, Va., announced that it had shifted the emphasis of its "no hats, no hoods, no sunglasses" policy from head covering to making sure that credit union staff can see the member's face.
"The policy is that head coverings for religious reasons, cultural reasons, economic reasons and medical reasons are all acceptable, as long as we can see the members full face," explained Tom Lyons, senior vice president for security for the credit union. "Our emphasis is on safety of our members and on preventing robberies and identity theft."
Lyons said the credit union had begun to implement the policy of asking members to remove head coverings and sun glasses as the economic downturn had begun to make robberies more likely. Lyons acknowledged that similar policies had been in place at credit unions and banks for some time.
CUNA Mutual, the insurer for the majority of the nation's credit unions, along with federal and various state law enforcement officials began to promote the policy as early as 2000 as an appropriate way to help both discourage robberies before they happen and catch the perpetrators should there be a robbery.
The policy is often considered hand in hand with another policy that calls on banks and credit unions to make sure someone greets members when they enter the branch and acknowledge them. That level of recognition with eye contact is often considered key to preventing robberies.
Lyons said that Navy Federal staff were being trained in that policy as well.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for CAIR, applauded Navy Federal's changed approach and said the organization had been advocating for an approach that focused on recognizing a member's face from the beginning.
"We have never been interested in someone coming into a bank or credit union with their face covered," Hooper said. "This seems like an approach that both protects security and rights."