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Exposure: A Muslim Woman's Unlawful Humiliation by Law Enforcement

Lindsay Kee,
ACLU of Tennessee
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April 1, 2011

(Editor’s note: We know it’s no longer Women’s History Month, but we still have a lot more to say! We’ll be featuring a few more posts in April.)

Imagine the uproar if women were forced to remove their shirts and bras for booking photos in police stations or jails. The feelings of vulnerability, degradation and trauma such a practice would generate would quickly put an end to it. For a Muslim woman, wearing a hijab (headscarf) is not only a symbol of her faith, but a way for her to control the parts of her body people see. Being forced to remove the hijab is humiliating, no different from being compelled to strip in front of others.

Yet that’s exactly what happened to Nashville, Tennessee, mother and educator Leyla Isaaq* several weeks ago, at the hands of the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office. After being cited for a minor traffic-related charge Leyla reported to the jail for booking, where she was told she must remove her hijab to be photographed. She tried for hours to explain to officers that, according to her religious beliefs, she must remain covered at all times in public and especially in the presence of men. The sheriff’s office told her that if she did not remove it, she would be subject to arrest, despite the fact that her hijab in no way obscured her face and she was able to wear itin the photograph on her driver’s license. To add insult to injury, the booking photo was then posted in a database accessible not only to law enforcement, but to the general public via Tennessee’s Open Records law.

Muslim women, like all people in the United States, have the right to practice their religion, including wearing headscarves and other religious dress. This right should be accommodated in all situations to the greatest degree possible. In addition to the protections of the First Amendment and the Tennessee Constitution, the Tennessee Preservation of Religious Freedom Act bars government entities from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion, unless it is the “least restrictive means” for achieving an “essential governmental interest”— neither of which is true in Leyla’s case.

Leyla contacted the ACLU of Tennessee (ACLU-TN), which immediately demanded that the sheriff’s office destroy the photograph. The image was quickly replaced with a picture of Leyla wearing her hijab. ACLU-TN also requested that the sheriff implement a written policy that ensures that the religious freedom rights of all detainees are respected. Other jails and prisons throughout the country, including the federal prison system, have procedures that allow Muslim women to wear the hijab. Kentucky and New York also have policies protecting the rights of Muslim women to wear headscarves in jails. ACLU-TN continues to negotiate with the sheriff to develop an appropriate policy to protect religious freedom in the future.

Because of their visibility, Muslim women who wear hijab face particular exposure to discrimination. The ACLU has received increasing numbers of complaints from women who have been prohibited from wearing hijab in a number of contexts, and from women who have been harassed, fired from jobs, denied access to public places, and otherwise discriminated against because they wear hijab.

But thanks to women like Leyla standing up for their right to practice their faith, we continue to move closer to being a country where women are able to express their religious beliefs — including choosing whether or not to wear head coverings — free from discrimination, oppression, and prejudice.

* Not her real name

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