While Muslim men have been vilified and targeted as terrorists in the current national security frenzy, Muslim women who wear religious headcoverings face unique exposure to prejudice because of their visibility. Their outward self-identification makes them vulnerable to both anti-Muslim bias and gender-based discrimination.
Jameelah Medina experienced this acutely when she was arrested in Pomona, CA on December 7, 2005 for having an invalid train pass. Ms. Medina, a devout Muslim, wears a hijab (headscarf) to cover her hair, ears, neck and part of her chest. During the car ride to the West Valley Detention Center, the arresting officer accused Ms. Medina of being a terrorist and of supporting Saddam Hussein. While Ms. Medina tried to calmly answer his questions about why she chooses to cover her hair, he yelled at her that Muslims are evil and that the United States was in Iraq at God’s direction to squash evil.
Upon arrival at the jail, Ms. Medina was forced to remove her hijab, despite her objections that she wears it for religious reasons. Like many Muslim women, Ms. Medina feels strongly that she must be covered at all times in the presence of men who are not members of her immediate family. Despite her repeated requests to keep her head covered during her day-long incarceration, she was forced to remain uncovered for much of the day, including in the presence of men she did not know, upon threat of having her processing and release delayed if she did not comply. She was released at the end of the day and was never prosecuted in connection with the arrest.
In December 2007 the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the San Bernardino County for violating Ms. Medina’s religious freedom rights. In an attempt to have part of the case dismissed, the county filed a motion alleging that Ms. Medina’s rights under state law were not violated because officers did not use or threaten physical violence in order to force her to remove her hijab.
On Monday, in a triumph for civil rights, United States District Judge Virginia Phillips issued an order denying the county’s motion, ruling that the coercion and intimidation that Ms. Medina says she experienced when the officers commanded her to remove her scarf and threatened her with delayed release from jail if she refused were clearly enough to support a claim under California civil rights law. The judge ordered the county, whose attorneys did not appear at the hearing, to file an answer to Ms. Medina’s complaint.