In the summer of 2020, as protests erupted across the United States following the tragic murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, Alaa Massri, an 18-year-old Muslim woman, found herself at the center of a disturbing incident. Massri had actively participated in organizing protests against racism and police brutality in Miami, Florida, proudly wearing her hijab, a religious head covering worn by Muslim women. However, when she was arrested, she was subjected to a violation of her religious and civic rights – the forcible removal of her hijab for a booking photo. Unfortunately, Massri’s experience is not an isolated incident; it highlights a broader issue concerning the rights of Muslim women in police custody.
Symbol of Devotion and Identity
For Muslim women, the hijab is more than just a piece of fabric; it represents their religious devotion and cultural identity deeply rooted in Islamic traditions. It is considered obligatory in Islam and serves as a symbol of modesty and privacy. Thus, being asked to remove their hijab in front of strangers is a direct violation of their religious and civic rights.
Systematic Violation of Rights
In the absence of federal laws protecting a woman’s right to wear a hijab during an arrest, each state in the US has its own policy. While some police departments have taken steps to accommodate religious coverings during booking photos, many others have failed to do so. This systematic violation of the First Amendment has led to lawsuits and legal battles to protect the rights of Muslim women.
Fight for Change
Two Muslim women, Jamilla Clark and Arwa Aziz, decided to take action after facing a similar ordeal during their arrests. They filed a class-action civil rights lawsuit against the New York Police Department (NYPD), arguing that the policies for photographing arrestees violated their religious rights. The lawsuit eventually led to a change in the NYPD’s policy, allowing religious observers to be photographed with unobstructed faces while wearing head coverings. Similar efforts in other cities have resulted in police departments revising their policies and compensating victims for past violations.
Islamophobia in American Policing
The issue of removing hijabs during arrests stems from deeply ingrained Islamophobia within some sectors of American policing. The fear and suspicion surrounding Islam often lead to unjust profiling and discriminatory practices against Muslim individuals. This is evident in instances where police departments have specifically targeted Muslim communities for surveillance, creating an atmosphere of othering and mistrust.
Reclaiming Power and Identity
While some Muslim women have managed to secure policy changes and legal victories, others still endure the traumatic experience of having their hijabs forcibly removed during arrests. The impact of such incidents can be profound, leaving women feeling violated and stripped of their humanity. However, many resilient individuals, like Alaa Massri and Aida Shyef al-Kadi, have fought back, asserting their rights and demanding respect for their religious beliefs.
The battle for hijab rights in American policing is a reflection of broader issues of systemic discrimination and Islamophobia. The experiences of women like Alaa Massri and Aida Shyef al-Kadi highlight the urgent need for comprehensive federal legislation that protects the rights of religious minorities in police custody. It is only through education, policy reform, and a commitment to inclusivity that law enforcement agencies can overcome their prejudices and uphold the values of religious freedom and diversity that America stands for. The fight for hijab rights serves as a crucial reminder that the journey towards a just and equitable society is far from over.