The Citadel, Charleston, S.C. March, 2016.
(Photo by Zach Bland/The Citadel)

When news spread that The Citadel was considering the first-ever exception to its strict uniform requirements to allow an admitted student to wear a hijab in keeping with her Muslim faith, reaction was intense. Some welcomed the possibility as an important symbol of religious freedom, but for many in the tight-knit community of cadets and alumni, the very idea of an exception was anathema because the ideals of loyalty, uniformity, and corps-before-self are so central to the storied public military college’s mission and traditions.

And at a time when the role of Islam in U.S. culture is so divisive — with national leaders and political candidates arguing whether the religion is one of violence or whether the fight against extremist terrorists is in no way a fight against the Muslim faith — the idea of making an exception for a Muslim student was particularly powerful for many on campus and far beyond.

But that might not be the only change allowed for the admitted student, should she choose to attend the school in Charleston, S.C. The Citadel has considered other possible accommodations, according to a cadet who says a school official discussed possible exceptions to the public military college’s rigid code in meetings with students.

A spokesman said no decision has been made about the religious accommodation. If granted, it would apparently be the only exception made to the strict uniform requirements in the institution’s nearly 175-year history, spokeswoman Kimberly Keelor has said.

Nick Pinelli, a cadet expecting to graduate next month, said a school official told some students that the hijab is not the only accommodation being considered. He said he and others were told school officials were considering multiple possible exceptions, such as a covering for the students’ arms and legs during exercise, allowing her mandatory inspections to be conducted only by females, ensuring privacy in the barbershop when getting her hair cut, and a single room. An official contacted by The Post declined to comment, referring questions to the office of communications.

On Friday, Brett Ashworth, a Citadel spokesman, said the school is considering two specific requests from the student: That she be allowed to wear a hijab and that she be allowed to cover her arms and legs.

Pinelli wrote about the hijab issue in a widely shared post on social media, which generated intense response. Many expressed anger about a possibility that they felt threatened the very core of the Citadel’s unchanged historic values: Discipline, loyalty, unity. All students are expected to leave behind their individual preferences and learn to judge one another on character and leadership rather than surface differences, so to have one student singled out for special treatment seemed to contradict that mission.

Pinelli, who emphasized he was not speaking for The Citadel — or for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, for which he interns — said that he does not blame the school for considering the request and that his concern is not about the prospective student or her religion: “It’s the thought process, that everything needs to change just because it’s 2016.”

Others saw in the possibility an important sign of progress at the historic institution. One asked on social media whether “time-honored traditions” meant the time when the school was all-male and all-white.

The school has had Muslim students for years, including several who are currently enrolled.

A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations said if the accepted student’s request is granted, it would be a pleasant surprise.

“It would send a very positive message to the American Muslim community — and to the Muslim community worldwide — that an institution like the Citadel would allow hijab,” Ibrahim Hooper said. “Which, by the way, it should be doing anyway. Better late than never.”

CAIR is sending a letter, with the family of the student involved, thanking school officials, Hooper said. He said the family prefers not to talk about the issue at the moment.

“I think the school is doing the right thing,” said a cadet who spoke on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the issue on the Charleston campus. The school has been very supportive of religious students’ requests to observe holidays, and helping students get to religious services, he said. “They are always fair to everyone.”

And he supports the girl’s right to both practice her faith and be a part of The Citadel. It’s time for change, he said. “It needs to move forward. The school has always been praised for sticking to old traditions and old ways and remembering … immortalizing the leadership,” from past wars. But as the school, the city and the country become more diverse, he argued, it’s important to adapt to the new reality.

Still, given the school’s emphasis on uniformity, he said, it also is easy to understand the objections.

“There are many Christians who wanted to display their cross and were told not to do so,” the cadet said, noting that Jewish men have been told not to wear their yarmulkes. “I can see where they would feel a little upset. If they open it up to this Muslim female, I think out of fairness they’ll have no choice but to allow Christian cadets to also display their articles of faith.”

He said the Citadel is, in his experience, “a lot more respectful toward other cultures, other people, other religions, than other colleges, I believe. … When we come here we’re supposed to leave everything behind us, metaphorically strip everything from our backgrounds, get rid of everything that defines us as individuals, and learn to grow together.” He didn’t realize a close friend was very wealthy until long after the first year was over, for example, when students are allowed to bring more of their own things to campus.

That’s one of the best, most powerful things about the experience, he said: “We’re supposed to leave everything behind and judge each other on character and how we’re going to work together.”

Pinelli said the possibility of an exception came in the midst of other changes that some cadets and alums feel have been eroding the rigor, standards and traditions of the school. Stepped-up enforcement of anti-hazing rules, for example, have watered down the challenging, all-consuming “knob” experience that first-year students have historically endured in order to become strong, resilient, and united. He said even something as seemingly innocuous as ordering a “knob” to pick up laundry is now strictly punished.

“The biggest concern isn’t the religion or the girl herself,” Pinelli said. “The biggest concern is how this ties into a lot of the changes that have happened in the last 24 to 36 months at the Citadel.”

He said women are very well-respected at the school, and often work harder than the men to achieve the standards required. And he offered examples such as a cadet with cerebral palsy who did not ask for accommodations to the physical fitness requirement, despite the considerable extra hurdle it presented him. That cadet kept trying, repeatedly failing, until he finally met the same standards, Pinelli said. It’s not like an academy where everyone will serve in the military after graduation, he said; people choose the school for its ideals and their desire to meet them, no matter how difficult.

(A cadet who is an amputee recently made the elite Summerall Guards, the first to do so.)

The cadet speaking anonymously said he thinks stricter enforcement of the rules is a good thing, closing some of the old loopholes and upholding the commitment to honor and integrity. “When you come here, there’s a lot to sacrifice,” he said. Often, he added, “the females have to sacrifice even more than the men.”


Citadel cadets trying out for Summerall Guards. (Photo courtesy of The Citadel)

One of the things that separates the Citadel from other colleges, even those that emphasize things such as accountability, is that such ideas are the top priority, Pinelli said.

“The thing about the Citadel is the values we find important,” Pinelli said. “The values we embody here aren’t the main ingredient at other colleges. … The most important thing here is honor, duty, and respect. It’s been like that a long time. That’s what people want to make sure doesn’t go away.

“Things are changing a lot really quickly around here,” Pinelli said. “But we’re still the last of our kind. We’ve got to fight for it.”


This post has been updated.