Until today, American Muslim women have been fighting an uphill battle for their right to cover their heads in the traditional hijab. Whether at school, work, even government offices, we have stood unflinching as the debate about Islamophobia, creeping Shariah and all the other ugly words associated with being Muslim in America have swirled about us. Hearing negative comments, facing discrimination in hiring, being marginalized in social groups or treated with sympathy for assumed oppression, we have faced it all while defending our right to express our faith through our dress. Until today.

A little known six-year litigation between a Muslim woman and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department ended in a landmark case today in the Muslim’s favor, awarding damages to Souhair Khatib of Anaheim for the indignity she faced at the hands of law enforcement officials. The case revolved around police holding cell procedures, which demand that articles of clothing deemed dangerous be removed from those taken into custody. While admirable in theory, the procedure failed to take into account religious clothing that the person taken into custody may be wearing – such as the hijab. Those who know Muslim women who wear the hijab (be it in the form of a head scarf, coat, burka or anything else), will also be aware of the importance they award this article of clothing. Most of us are fiercely protective of it – and ourselves in it – and will resist ardently in case of removal in the company of men. For Souhair Khatib, who was not a criminal, having her hijab forcibly removed in front of men despite her pleadings, was a real nightmare, one that I cannot imagine undergoing myself.

Although Muslim women encountering law enforcement in this manner probably isn’t too much of a regular occurrence, it’s not the first time something like this has happened. Last year a Houston Muslim woman complained about having her hijab removed by police while being detained after a street protest. Thankfully that case didn’t go to court, but it is leadng to a more or less voluntary sensitivity training by the Houston police department to make sure they’re not embarrassed in the media again. In the case of Souhair Khatib, six years of litigation was necessary for law enforcement to understand what should be elementary for all of us: knowledge about the “other” leads to tolerance and ultimately a more peaceful world. A police department (or any other area of public service) that deals with people of different faiths must take the initiative to teach its employees about issues those groups find important. Otherwise they have to pay the price ($85,000 in this situation) and at the end of the process still have to conduct the training.

As a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, I’m worried that something like this could ever happen to me or my daughter. But I’m also convinced that ignorance is the main culprit behind many such incidences. I have high hopes that Souhair Khatib’s case will pave the way for other police departments to voluntarily educate themselves about genuine areas of concern that their citizens may have. It’s a small price to pay for tolerance and peace.

Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith liaison for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, and editor of the Interfaith Houston blog. She is actively involved in interfaith coalition building in the Greater Houston community. Most recently she has led a cultural sensitivity training for the Houston Police Department and continues to offer Islam in America presentations at local academic and religious institutions. In addition to her own blog, she writes for the Houston Community Newspapers and Religious Freedom USA.


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