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Checking in: SXSW apologizes after telling Olympic fencer to remove hijab

Even a free-spirited gathering like South By Southwest has its diversity struggles. And something as mundane as badge registration brings it to the forefront.

Ibtihaj Muhammad, a member of the US Olympic fencing team, was asked by a SXSW volunteer to take off her hijab.
Duncan Williams/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Even as South by Southwest tries to highlight diversity as a main theme of the famous Austin festival, the tech, film and music confab has still had its issues.

Ibtihaj Muhammad, a member of the 2016 US Olympic fencing team, was registering for the festival on Saturday afternoon when she was asked to remove her hijab. Muhammad, who is Muslim, told the attendant she wears the headscarf for religious reasons, but the checker still insisted she take it off for her badge photo.

"I can't make this stuff up," she wrote on Twitter.

Then after she received her badge (she's still wearing her hijab in the photo), she was given a badge with the wrong name: Tamir Muhammad from Time Warner.

SXSW apologized for the incident, saying the request to remove the hijab was not made in accordance with the event's rules.

"It is not our policy that a hijab or any religious head covering be removed in order to pick up a SXSW badge," event organizers said in a statement. "This was one volunteer who made an insensitive request and that person has been removed for the duration of the event. We are embarrassed by this and have apologized to Ibtihaj in person, and sincerely regret this incident."

The incident is sure to be embarrassing for SXSW, which has doubled down on discussing diversity issues this year. In October, the festival started a firestorm after it canceled two panels about harassment in video gaming. After receiving heavy criticism and threats from media outlets to boycott the festival, SXSW instead created an entire all-day summit devoted to discussing online harassment.

Even an event as free-spirited as South by Southwest has diversity struggles. Perhaps the most telling example of the festival's struggles is its check-in processes -- actually quite an apt metaphor. Those processes have been illustrative of how the 30-year-old festival is still trying to deal with the nuances, emotions, and even logistics of trying to create a more diverse environment.

At the online harassment summit, which was held at a hotel across the river and away from most of the other programming at the Austin Convention Center, the check-in process was intensive. Security to get into the building was tighter than any event at the conference, with a bag-check more stringent than when President Barack Obama spoke at the festival the day before. There were also policemen stationed near each of the three ballrooms.

Muhammad, who spoke at a panel later Saturday, talked about her registration experience. "I had a crappy experience checking in," she said, according to the Chicago Tribune. "Someone asking me to remove my hijab isn't out of the norm for me."

"Do I hope it changes soon?" she said. "Yes, every day."