I know it is difficult for some to understand why a piece of cloth on someone’s head can have so much importance. But the hijab is more than a piece of cloth for those of us who wear it. For me it is a privilege to be able to wear the hijab, and it is a daily reminder of my faith. It is a way for me to be in charge of my own femininity and to make an active decision about what I choose to cover and what I choose to let people see. For a Muslim woman to be forced to remove her hijab in public where men are present is a humiliating and possibly traumatizing experience that she will not soon forget. This humiliation and indignation is the same that a non-Muslim woman would feel if she were forced to take off her shirt and bra and walk around topless in public where men are present. Just as most women feel that their breasts are a private area that is to be covered in public, many Muslim women feel the same way about their hair. The forcible removal of a woman’s hijab should be just as unacceptable as the compulsory removal of a woman’s shirt and bra.
In December 2005, when I was arrested for having an invalid train pass, I was forced to remove my hijab in front of male deputies at the West Valley Detention Center. I felt completely naked. I honestly cannot imagine feeling more humiliated even if they had forced me to remove all of my clothing. What I mean to say is that, for me, wearing clothes without my hijab is just as meaningless as wearing a hijab without any clothes on — either way, I feel exposed. When the officers compelled me to remove my hijab, it was as if they forced me to remove all of my clothing because of the level of indignation I experienced. No woman should have to experience this even if she has been arrested.
In this country, we are supposedly free to practice our religion, and we do not check our federally protected rights at the jailhouse door. Or better said, we should not be forced to relinquish those rights, especially when that right can be so easily protected by having certain policies in place. When I told the deputy that I could not take off my hijab, there should have been a policy that would allow her to check my hair in private. At the airport, I am always taken into a private room or behind a curtain, where 2 or 3 female TSA agents have me unpin my hijab, they check my hair, and I put my hijab back on. But because there was no such policy in place at the jail, I was forced to remain uncovered for approximately 12 hours and to be seen uncovered by male deputies. During this time I was also hyper-aware of the presence of male voices in my proximity, and felt utterly vulnerable.
Once I became aware that my rights had been violated, I did not have any other choice but to seek justice for the wrong that was done; I had to do it for myself and for every other woman who has ever and will ever be put in that unnecessary situation. I am just so thankful that the ACLU was able to take the case and fight to safeguard the religious rights of women. As a result, San Bernardino County will implement new policies that protect women’s rights, and I hope that all jurisdictions will follow this example.
Learn more about my case and the settlement at: www.aclu.org/muslimwomen.