After a journey this year to Mecca, Islam's holiest site, Stacy Tobing made a vow to live more faithfully by the strictures of her Muslim faith.
That included wearing the hijab, a head scarf required by the Koran to preserve modesty for Muslim women. But when she planned a return to work June 17 as a Montgomery County firefighter, superiors raised concerns that it might compromise safety and would not allow her to wear it on duty.
But a compromise was reached in a few days, and will be formalized in an agreement that will be announced today, allowing Tobing to wear the hijab while on the job as a paramedic. In return, she has agreed to remove it and wear a fire-retardant hood if pressed into duty battling a fire.
As a result, Tobing, 29, might be the first Muslim female firefighter to wear the hijab on duty.
"We deal with a lot of these kinds of cases and this is the first one [of its type] that we've heard of," said Joshua Salaam, civil rights coordinator of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based lobby that helped negotiate the agreement.
Salaam said CAIR handles about 700 civil rights complaints a year, with about 30 percent involving the hijab. CAIR bases its advocacy of such cases on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees' religious practices unless it would cause an undue hardship.
Tobing's name was Stacy Pitts when she became a firefighter in Montgomery County seven years ago, working the first five years as a volunteer and the last two on a full-time, paid basis. About a year and a half ago, she began working with another paramedic, Amer Tobing, who was born a Muslim.
"She was looking for something that had some valid answers for her," Amer Tobing said. "I would just talk to her about Islam. The next thing I knew, she was interested in Islam."
Pitts, who was raised as a Lutheran, converted to Islam, and she and Tobing were married in Syria in May. Their travels included a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Her experience in the Middle East deepened her faith, she said. "I wasn't covering before I left. I had asked in my prayers to give me strength to follow through my faith with action in wearing the hijab. I had it on the whole time I was there," she said. "I didn't want to become weak when I got back to the West."
The hijab Tobing wears is dark blue. "It's very simple. It's just two pieces, no ties. It slips right off my head," she said.
She said the hood made of Nomex, a fire-retardant material, could be viewed as serving the same purpose as the hijab under Muslim law.
"We were concerned that as a firefighter, she really needed the hood protection," said county Fire Administrator Gordon Aoyagi. "And at all other times, we felt it was appropriate for her to engage in her religious obligation because it didn't appear to affect her other work activities."
The reaction of co-workers has mostly been one of curiosity, Tobing said.
"It's been uncomfortable at times," she said. "But I know the importance of going by God's dress code as opposed to man's ideas."