Lawsuits brought against NYC for forcing arrested Muslim women remove hijabs spark debates about religious freedom

Two Muslim women are suing New York City after they were forced to removed their hijabs and pose for mugshots after being arrested. The advocacy group, Turning Point for Women and Families, are supporting the women as they seek class action status with the Manhattan federal court lawsuit.

The two women were arrested separately in 2017. According to the lawsuit, Jamilla Clark reportedly sobbed at police headquarters as she was made to push her hijab around her shoulders after being arrested for violating a bogus protective order filed by her abusive ex-husband. She was threatened with prosecution if she did not remove the head covering, and a police officer present allegedly mocked the Muslim faith. Aziz was arrested for violating a bogus protective order filed by her vindictive sister-in-law, and reportedly sobbed as she was made to remove her hijab and have her picture taken in view of a dozen male police officers and more than thirty male inmates.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and a declaration that the city’s handling of police photographs is unconstitutional, alleging it violates the first amendment and federal and state laws. It stated, “Requiring a Muslim woman to remove her hijab in public is akin to demanding that a secular person strip naked in front of strangers”.

While the city’s law office said it would review the lawsuit, it said “we are confident that the police department’s religious head covering policy passes constitutional muster. It carefully balances the department’s respect for the customs of all religions with the legitimate law enforcement need to take arrest photos … Persons who do not wish to remove religious head coverings in front of others have the option of being taken to a separate, more private, facility to be photographed”.

In February 2018, three other Muslim women each received a $60,000 settlement with New York City after they were also forced to remove their hijabs in police custody in order to have their mugshots taken. The settlements involved separate cases that claimed the women’s religious rights had been violated. A spokesperson for the city’s law department said, “The resolution of these matters were in the best interest of all parties involved”. The charges for which these women were arrested were resolved without conviction and sealed.

The lawyer for the women, Tahanie A. Aboushi, said the cases touched on a broader point about religious dress that could apply to a number of people, including Orthodox Jewish women and Sikh men wearing the turban.

In 2015 and 2017, the New York Police Department issued interim orders that people who wore religious head coverings could be photographed with them on, or have them taken to a private area, yet these options are not given to some women.

The debate surrounding this issue is part of a larger debate about how law enforcement officials, airport security personnel, and some employers, have to address or modify policies and practices to accommodate religious requirements. Johnathan Smith, the legal director for Muslim Advocates, said, “We regularly hear complaints from people who encounter a whole host of obstacles, from people who wear religious head coverings or people who fit the profile of what a Muslim looks like”.

Albert Fox Cahn, the legal director for the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said, “No New Yorker should be robbed of their right to practice their faith simply because they are arrested … We want city-wide reform because too many New Yorkers have already suffered under our existing policy, forced to undress against their will”.

As well as reaction from Muslim advocacy groups, the stories of completed and ongoing lawsuits regarding this issue have also raised opposing reaction.

The website Islamist Watch reported briefly reported on and shared a link to an article detailing the case of another Muslim woman who was paid $85,000 by New York City after she was made to remove her hijab by police, potentially implying that such cases of compensation are incidences of Islamism.

Concerns about this same case are also expressed in an article on the Geller Report website, which states of the recent lawsuit filed by CAIR, “Ten [years] ago, the Hamas-front group CAIR would never have attempted such a putsch on law enforcement. But after a decade of Western appeasement, submission, and self-flagellation over fictional tales of “islamophobia” in the face of endless jihad attacks and attempts, they’re emboldened. And now the total payout for cases like this one is at least $265,000. If you live in New York City, this is what your tax money is going for”.

The Florida Family Association, whose slogan is ‘Defending American Values’, has provided links to their followers so that they may “encourage the New York Police Department to stand firm for the policy that requires removal of headgear, including hijabs, during official arrest photographs”. The association states that, “Allowing any person alleged to have committed a crime and being admitted to prison to wear any headgear that obstructs the full identity of the perpetrator during the official arrest photograph defies logic and threatens public safety”.

It goes onto state that few women actually wear the hijab, and that “The hijab was invented in the 1970s over the 1300 years after the Quran was written. The truth is the hijab is not derived from the Quran but is legislated by Islamist dictates and fatwas that oppress and dominate women. Strict Islamic law, Sharia and fatwa enforcement requiring women to wear the hijab started only within the last 50 years. Muslim women are currently protesting the Islamist dictates in Iran and Saudi Arabia. The oppressive dictates of Sharia law, which are antithetical to the rights afforded all Americans by the United States Constitution, have no place governing police policy and interfering with public safety”.

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Associated Press. (2018) ‘Two Muslim women sue New York after police make them remove hijabs’. [online] 17 March. [Accessed 28 March 2018].

CAIR. (2018) ‘CAIR-NY, ECBA File Civil Rights Class Action Lawsuit to Block NYPD From Removing Arrestees’ Hijabs for Booking Photos’. [online] 16 March. [Accessed 28 March 2018].

Hauser, C. (2018) ‘Women Forced to Remove Hijabs for Mug Shots Settle With New York City’. [online] 28 February. [Accessed 28 March 2018].

Kuruvilla, C. (2018) ‘Muslim Women Forced to Remove Hijab for Mugshots File Civil Rights Lawsuit’. [online] 19 March. [Accessed 28 March 2018].