Muslim BLM protester made to remove hijab 'against her will' by US police

Muslim BLM protester made to remove hijab 'against her will' by US police
Alaa Massri, 18, was arrested while protesting at the site of the statues of Christopher Columbus and Juan Ponce de León, which protesters have been asking to take down.
5 min read
24 June, 2020
Alaa’s arrest caused outrage: 130,000 people signed the petition demanding charges be dropped. [Twitter]

A Muslim woman arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest in Miami was forced to remove her hijab (a religious head cover) at a correctional centre for seven hours - including while her mugshot was taken - her lawyer alleges. 

Alaa Massri, 18, was arrested on 10 June accused of assaulting a police officer after she was asked to leave a road where a protest had taken place.

"The police arrested me because I was trying to aid someone who was injured after being hit by a police car," she tweeted on 11 June, after being released.

Along with rights groups, her lawyer says the removal of the veil went against her religious and constitutional rights.

Lawyer, Khurrum Wahid, said in an interview that Massri's hijab "is part of a sincerely held religious belief that she has" and that "it was removed against her will".

Many Muslim women wear a hijab as a sign of modesty and a reflection of religious beliefs though motivations can vary.

"There is no need to remove the hijab and photograph her," Wahid said. "A search can be conducted by a same-sex officer in a private room and the hijab can be placed back on her."

Alaa's arrest has caused outrage online, with more than 130,000 people signing a petition that demands Massri's charges be dropped, her mugshot taken offline, and for the police officers who arrested her to be "held responsible".

Photos of Alaa's mugshot have also been posted online, which angered the Muslim community.

"These disgusting pigs still have my mugshot up. Please go spam their emails demanding to take it down," she tweeted on 23 June, after a local news site posted her mugshot online.

It read: "Ms. Massri had her human as well as Constitutional rights blatantly violated in a number of ways. Her 1st Amendment right to peacefully protest was egregiously infringed on when she was arrested with no inciting incident or probable cause for her detainment."

The Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department said it "has policies in place in order to accommodate inmates who wear head coverings for religious reasons. Arrestees, who claim or appear to be of a particular faith, are allowed to keep their head-covering once it has been searched for contraband and the booking photograph has been taken".

Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, said mugshots of Massri without her hijab must be expunged and charges against her dismissed.

"We are planning to take all necessary steps to get justice for Alaa and to ensure that her humiliating and unconstitutional treatment that she faced is not faced by anyone again in Florida," he said. "We will pursue all legal avenues, including filing a suit" if needed.

The incident was "an assault both on her ability to practice her faith and also her ability to define what modesty means for her as a woman", said Shibly who has been in touch with Massri about the incident.

"Ultimately, this isn't about Muslims or Islam. It is about protecting the constitution for everyone."

In 2019, a Minnesota woman, Aida Shyef Al-Kadi, said she received a $120,000 settlement after she was arrested in 2013 over a traffic offence and was she was alleged to have been made to remove her hijab for a booking photo.

In 2018, a CAIR Georgia statement said a city of Atlanta detention center agreed to permit inmates who cover their hair "because of a sincerely held religious belief" to do so while detained. The jail approved scarves that were acceptable for use, the statement said, adding CAIR Georgia was supplying them.

"There's no one uniform national rule or standard about how to handle this," said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, CAIR's deputy executive director.

Mitchell said the reason given by police for the removal of the hijabs include the need to search clothing for weapons, fear that the hijab inside a jail could pose a strangulation risk, or the need to have a clearly identifiable booking photographs.

He argued that a person can be clearly identifiable with a head cover on and said there were workarounds such as patting a headscarf for a search or taking it off only in front of female officers.

"We have seen the forced removal of the hijab as a broader trend to demean and humiliate Muslim women in state custody," Nimra Azmi, staff attorney at civil rights organisation Muslim Advocates, said by e-mail.

According to Massri's arrest affidavit, sent in response to questions emailed to the Miami Police Department, she was charged with battery on a police officer, resisting an officer with violence, and disorderly conduct.

The report says that after giving multiple commands for Massri to move off the roadway, an officer grabbed her to escort her out of the area.

As he did so, it alleges, she punched him "in the right bicep with a closed fist".

A Miami Police Department statement about arrests made that day said: "In the City of Miami, we support peaceful protests but there will be zero tolerance for those who hide behind the peaceful protesters to incite riots, damage property, and hurt members of the public or our officers."

Wahid, the lawyer, said Massri "did not intentionally strike anyone" and "there was a lot of chaos going on when the police began this confrontation by rushing the protesters".

Her role that day, he said, was "as a volunteer, was to help people who were injured", adding she had basic first aid items such bandages and alcohol wipes.

He said he was confident his client will be exonerated.

Mitchell said the issue of religious headwear after arrests extends beyond Muslims.

"Whenever a police department or a county institutes a rule to accommodate, you know, a hair scarf, they're not only helping Muslim women," he said.

"They are helping all people of faith who may have to wear some sort of religious hair covering for some reason."

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