Ahmed Mohamed, a litigation director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations of New York (CAIR NY) is filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of individuals who have been forced to remove their religious head coverings upon arrest. At the center of the lawsuit is Ihsan Malkawi, a Muslim woman alleging that police in New York forced her to remove her hijab when she was arrested in August 2019.
The incident began when the daughter of Malkawi and her husband tried to run away from home. After bringing her back, the couple fought with their daughter who wanted to return to Michigan, where they had previously lived. The following day, their daughter called 911, claiming her parents had assaulted her with a belt and a curtain rod.
New York Child Protective Services has since determined the accusations to be false. That day, however, Yonkers police officers arrived at the couple’s home and brought them to the nearest precinct for questioning. Malkawi was arrested, handcuffed, and taken to a booking cell, where a police officer demanded she remove her hijab for a booking photo and time in the cell.
Malkawi protested, explaining that wearing her hijab was an important part of her religion. Still, the officer’s supervisor insisted that Malkawi take off her hijab in order to comply with the law. Reluctantly, Malkawi removed her hijab. She spent approximately 36 hours without her hijab, in addition to being forced to wear a short-sleeved shirt in city jail, until her husband was able to bail her out.
The Yonkers Police Department maintains at least two photos of Malkawi without her hijab. Malkawi has expressed that the existence of these photos and the residual trauma regarding the whole experience has contributed to her depression, anxiety, uncontrollable flashbacks, and nightmares almost a year later.
CAIR NY argues that the common practice of New York officers removing religious headwear upon arrest violates the first amendment. Furthermore, CAIR NY argues the practice is simply unnecessary–religious headwear like hijabs, Sikh turbans, and Jewish yarmulkes do not obscure the face, and are allowed to be worn in photos for other legal documents, like passports and driver’s licenses throughout the United States.
CAIR NY hopes the decision on the class action lawsuit in New York rules the practice unconstitutional, following precedents set by courts in Michigan, Maine, and California.
Sources: NBC News, 4/8/20; Huff Post, 4/8/20