DEARBORN, Mich — By her own admission, Capt. Maysaa Ouza is not a typical U.S. Air Force officer. The 29-year-old JAG officer (or Air Force attorney) grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, and she proudly wears a hijab.
"When I first joined, I personally didn't see any other Muslim women who wore a hijab in uniform," she said.
It was something Ouza had to fight for, too; a hijab, along with other religious dress in the Air Force, requires approval through a religious accommodation process.
"When I first joined, I was told that I wouldn't be allowed to apply for religious accommodation until after I completed officer training school," Ouza said. "I felt like I was being forced to choose between serving my country and practicing the tenets of my faith."
Back in 2018, before she was commissioned as a JAG officer, Ouza had to find legal guidance of her own.
"I wanted to join because I wanted to protect and defend the freedoms of this country, yet ironically enough, it felt like my religious freedom was being stripped away," she said. "So I called my mentor, and with her advice, we solicited the representation of the ACLU and Hammoud & Dakhlallah Law Group."
Because of those efforts, the Air Force not only granted Ouza a religious accommodation but changed its policy within a year.
"They changed their policy to allow pre-accession of religious accommodation requests," she said.
That meant airmen could start the process of applying for and getting religious accommodation right away.
"Sometimes issues don't really come to fruition unless someone makes an issue out of it. And I'm that type of person," Ouza said.
Making an issue out of it, or in this case advocating, is something Ouza does day-in and day-out for other people. She works as a special victims counsel at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
"I represent victims of sexual assault and domestic violence," Ouza said.
Ouza says her inspiration for joining the Air Force started with her parents and their dream for her future.
"My parents emigrated from Lebanon to Michigan in the early '80s," she said. "They came here with nothing but the clothes on their backs."
Ouza's father's first job in the U.S. was at Ford. Growing up, she said her parents taught her to dream big and fight hard for her values.
It's those lessons Ouza said led her to her career in the first place.
"I wanted to represent marginalized groups, and I wanted to help empower others to have a voice," she said.
Ouza uses TikTok as a megaphone in that effort. Her videos have millions and millions of views, and she often uses comedy and satire to spread messages of love, inclusion, and acceptance.
The Air Force doesn't track the number of religious accommodations it grants. However, the institution did respond to questions about demographics among its service members.
Overall the Air Force is mostly male and white. According to its self-reported demographic information, just 21.3% of active duty Air Force personnel are women.
The following percentages reflect active duty Air Force military members' racial identification:
- 71% White
- 15% Black or African American
- 4.3% Asian
- 0.8% American Indian / Native Alaskan
- 1.2% Native Hawaiian / Other Pacific Islander
- 4.6% Identified more than one race
- 3.5% Declined to respond
Additionally, because "Hispanic or Latino" is considered an ethnic, not a racial category, it is registered separately.
- 15.9% Hispanic or Latino
- 80.0% Not Hispanic or Latino
- 4.1% Declined to respond
"I receive messages on a daily [basis] from Muslims, from Sikhs, from other minorities who want to wear their articles of faith in the uniform," Ouza said.
Since the policy was changed, Ouza says she's seen a few more women in the Air Force sport hijabs.
"You can't be what you can't see," she said. "Hopefully, they can see themselves in me. When they see someone like me in a position like this, I want them to see themselves."
This story was originally published by Jenn Schanz on Scripps station WXYZ in Detroit.